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Habla Español? Firefighter teaches minorities fire safety

Annie Zelm • Mar 20, 2011 at 3:34 PM

The phrase "stop, drop and roll" is drilled into most children from the moment they can speak.

But "parar, caer, y rodar" is far less common.

That's something a Norwalk firefighter is working to change.

David Wallace, 46, taught children about fire safety for years, but he didn't realize how many in the Hispanic community weren't getting the message until he encountered a young girl who listened to his presentation with a puzzled look.

She had just moved to Norwalk and didn't speak English.

Hoping to help her and others, Wallace ordered 50 bilingual coloring books on fire prevention, thinking it would be more than enough to reach the Spanish-speaking children in the Norwalk schools.

A short time later, he ordered 250 more.

While meeting with the children, he soon discovered many of their parents never had fire safety training, and few had smoke detectors in their homes.

"We just take that for granted," said Wallace, a 16-year veteran of the fire department who recently won the Helping Our Neighbors Hero Award sponsored by the Firelands chapter of the American Red Cross.

Wallace knew he wanted to reach out to the Hispanic community. He just wasn't sure how to start.

He partnered with Jill Schafer, a community relations coordinator at Fisher-Titus Medical Center, to distribute coloring books and smoke detectors.

But he wanted to do more.

"We saw there was a real need for it," Schafer said. "They were so enthused with what he was telling them and asked great questions."

Schafer introduced him to Francisco Carrillo, a leader of the Hispanic community at St. Paul Church in Norwalk.

Carrillo helped coordinate the translation and recruited families for the first fire prevention class, hosted after Sunday church services in October 2009.

About 100 people attended, Wallace said.

He's since hosted several others.

The classes emphasize the importance of checking for fire hazards around the house, such as overloaded extension cords and candles, and teaches families to plan an escape route.

Norwalk fire also offers free smoke detectors, and families should check the batteries twice a year.

Wallace hopes to expand the program to other area churches and schools.

He's meeting with safety representatives who might use his program as a state-wide model, and he has encouraged other departments to start similar programs.

Sometimes, he's met with mixed reactions.

Many don't realize it's a problem, and others don't know how to begin helping -- or they tend to make assumptions about the Hispanic community, Wallace said.

Putting the program together gave Wallace a better understanding of what it must feel like to have an emergency amid unfamiliar surroundings, and not knowing what to do or how to ask for help.

"You realize these are just people with kids and families just like me, trying to make a living," Wallace said. "As much as this is a profession, it's also a mission to help people."

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