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Day camp kindles interest in safety

Eleven-year-old John Fitzgerald knows a thing or two about fire safety. And he is more than willing to share his collection of shoulds and shouldn'ts.

"You shouldn't mess with stuff like lighters and gasoline," says the Tampa sixth-grader.

"And you should have a fire alarm and a plan to get out. And you should have a meeting place so when everybody gets out of the house, you can find each other."

Like almost 200 other children who attended a safety day camp at North Lakes Park on Wednesday, John emerged wiser and sweatier after four hours of instruction, hands-on exhibits and games in the sweltering June sun.

Hillsborough County firefighters volunteered their time to educate campers ages 6 to 14 on the finer points of smoke alarms and escape routes, and Hillsborough County Parks and Recreation staffers offered pointers on bicycle and playground safety.

There was a session on water safety taught by Katherine Fuhrman of St. Joseph's Children's Hospital SAFEKIDS Coalition.

There was even Boomer, a talking, scaled-down model of a TECO truck.

"What are you going to do when you climb a tree?" said Boomer, drilling a group on how to behave around power lines.

"Look out for w-i-i-i-res," came the chorus of 6- and 7-year-olds, clearly thrilled to be talking to a truck.

County senior recreation specialist John Brill said the hands-on nature of the camp helps participants retain more information.

"It's interactive," Brill said. "It's not just somebody lecturing."

Indeed, 12-year-old Heather Abraham of New Port Richey found the displays far more interesting than anything she could read in a book. She especially liked Fire Safety House, a mobile home equipped to simulate a house fire.

Sure, she said, the cotton-candy-flavored smoke and the doors that heated up were "cool."

But she also learned how to handle herself in a fire. "You have to go down on the ground and crawl under the smoke," she said. "And you have to feel the door to see if it's hot. If it's hot you can't open it. You should go out the window."

Firefighter Kelly Hallman, who started the day camp two years ago, said the program has already reached 1,800 to 2,000 kids. Another 400 are expected at a camp July 26 at Brandon Park on Sadie Street.

Hallman says his experience as a firefighter has convinced him of the need for the camp.

"I've seen kids on a fire scene. Anytime you hear a call go out and there are kids, your heart sinks."

According to information from the St. Joseph's SAFEKIDS Coalition, 1,200 children under 14 die and 11,400 are injured nationally in residential fires each year. For children under 4, playing with matches and lighters is the leading cause of fire deaths and injuries. Ninety percent of child fire deaths occur in homes without working smoke detectors.

For information sheets from the coalition, call 870-KIDS.