June 23, 2018
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A deadly house fire reminds us that our best intentions aren’t enough to avoid tragedy

By Dr. Erik Steele

One tragedy of tragedies is that we often don’t learn from them, which means we waste those lessons others died “teaching” us. Our lives and deaths are replete with evidence of this, with thousands of Americans dying avoidably each year because we have trouble following through on the lessons of those who died before them.

That’s because knowledge of preventable tragedy and intent to avoid it are inadequate for changing our behavior. Specific steps are required to turn good intention into sustained, preventive, protective action.

The recent deaths of four Mainers in the state’s deadliest fire since 1992 are a case in point. In the miserable aftermath, tragedy-scarred fire officials begged us to learn from the tragedy and have working smoke detectors in several locations around our homes, check those detectors monthly, and develop home evacuation plans in case of a fire.

I have every intention of doing what they suggest. Unfortunately, and perhaps like you, I’m not likely to follow through on those best of intentions. So how can those of us who hear about preventable tragedy in the news translate our best intentions to protect ourselves into real and sustained action, and thereby reduce our chances of being the next news story about preventable tragedy?

First, we need to consistently schedule into the routine of our busy lives the basic safety steps that tragedies teach us. Otherwise, we will almost certainly forget to do things such as check smoke detectors once a month amidst the deluge of other things we have to remember. Scheduling such steps on the same day of each month is an association memory device that helps us remember to do the desired action by attaching it to the routine of a specific day, instead of hoping we remember it at some unspecified time in the routine of a month.

Second, we need a reminder system to go with the schedule, to increase the frequency of our exposure to the idea of doing the right thing. We can put it on our calendars, where we see it frequently. We could attach the National Fire Protection Agency’s monthly smoke detector check tear-off calendar (available at www.nfpa.org/assets/files//FPW11/FPW2011TearCalendar.pdf) to our fridge doors.

Third, get others in the house engaged in the activity. Five people with the job of remembering a safety task have a greater chance of remembering it than one person with that job. Reward members of the “home safety team” for doing the right thing; if you attach the safety check to your children’s allowances, you can bet it will not be forgotten until they all go off to college.

Make the safety task fun. The National Fire Protection Agency monthly tear-off calendar has a picture of Sparky the Fire Dog on it that children can color — have each of your children color their version of Sparky, call the smoke detector check day “Sparky’s Day,” make the monthly check family fun time, and they will not be able to wait for the first day of each month. We are more likely to do things we have multiple reasons to do than things we have only one reason to do, and fun is another way to add reward to the list of reasons to do the right things.

These tools — reminders and other systems that help us remember to do the right thing, added motivation, engaging others in the task — are all devices to increase our chances of following through on our best intentions. The same approach works for other good habit-building activities, whether safety-related or otherwise, such as wearing seat belts and life preservers, keeping medications and other dangerous ingestibles out of the mouths of young children, eating more fruits and vegetables, etc.

The 3,000-plus Americans who die in fires each year cannot be honored by simply wishing to avoid their fate. Basic but effective steps to habituate safety are required to prevent us and them from dying in vain.


Erik Steele, a physician in Bangor, is chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems.


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