Summit on fire safety education of new US residents

Fire safety tips such as not playing with matches, not overloading an electrical outlet with plugs, watching over cooking dinner, handling lit cigarettes or candles with care and having smoke detectors in the home are common knowledge to most if not all people born in America.

Michael Fondungallah (left) talked about the difference in fire safety awareness in his native country of Cameron while Rotimi Lawal, who grew up in Nigeria, listens in. Photo by Eric Hagen

Michael Fondungallah (left) talked about the difference in fire safety awareness in his native country of Cameron while Rotimi Lawal, who grew up in Nigeria, listens in. Photo by Eric Hagen

However, some immigrants and refugees to the United States did not have electricity or candles where they came from. Some never saw a structure fire and some countries do not have many, if any, firefighters. In these cases, they rely on their neighbors to grab a bucket of water to douse the fire.

Local public safety officials heard stories like this from nine people who came to the United States from nine different countries. What was billed as a multicultural safety summit took place at Fire Station No. 3 of the Spring Lake Park-Blaine-Mounds View (SBM) Fire Department Sept. 18.

The panelists included Michael Fondungallah from Cameroon, Trong Nyguen from Vietnam, Peter Vondenka from the Czech Republic, Marina Lopez from Mexico, Fathia Absia from Somalia, Shegitu Kebede from Ethiopia, Rotimi Lawal from Nigeria, Rimon Asaad from Egypt and Albert Nyembwe from Congo.

Becky Booker, a life and safety educator with the SBM Fire Department, invited these nine individuals to be a part of this summit so everyone would be more educated. In prior conversations with the panelists, Booker heard that many people throw out the fire safety pamphlets they get after becoming U.S. citizens. Even if the material is translated into the proper language, they are accustomed to learning through a face-to-face conversation and not from a sheet of paper.

“We’re here to understand and to learn how to serve better,” Booker said.

SBM Fire was able to see the importance of the 12-year-old home safety survey program, which Fire Chief Nyle Zikmund said is a free program that brings safety inspectors into homes at the homeowner’s request to look for hazards.

The nine panelists could take what they learned back to other immigrants and refugees and encourage them to get a home safety survey done. Zikmund said the free inspection usually takes a little over an hour.

Although there were differences between the nine countries discussed at the Sept. 18 multicultural summit, the theme that emerged was fire departments were almost non-existent in rural areas and even in urban areas it could take hours for a volunteer firefighter to respond.

Therefore, they relied on their neighbors to put out fires. The government simply did not have much of an involvement in their day-to-day lives as it does in America.

“There’s no 911. Neighbors are your 911,” said Nyembwe, who grew up in the Congo.

Panelists share experiences

Fondungallah said military personnel in Cameroon were given equipment to put out fires. There were no fire stations. Vondenka said the Czech Republic did have some small fire stations, but it may take a firefighter a couple of hours to get there because they had to bike from work to the fire station first. Asaad said Egypt’s crowed roads delay emergency response time. Other motorists do not just move out of the way like they do in the United States.

Building materials in America are more flammable than what some of these panelists saw in their home countries. Absia said most of the homes in Somalia are made out of bricks and cement and people are always outside, so there’s obviously less of a chance for fires in the home.

“A lot of refugees, a lot of people when they came here figured we came to this very sophisticated country, so burning to death is just not something you think about,” Absia said. “You have a fire alarm, everything is hidden and tucked away, so you just think you’re safe.”

Even if a group of people come from the same country, they may not necessarily have had the same experiences. Nyembwe said when Belgium colonized a part of the Congo, it brought electricity. Nyembwe had electricity where he grew up. Other areas of the Congo did not have electricity. Some people used firewood for cooking while others without electricity who had more money used charcoal.

Lopez told Booker that in some areas of Mexico, people mostly cooked outside and they may not be able to afford cigarettes or candles so they do not think about fire safety.

Zikmund said the summit was “extraordinary,” and he personally loved hearing the individual stories of what some had to overcome before they came to the U.S. because it reinforced to him that freedoms we enjoy in the United States should not be taken for granted.

Booker’s dream would be to have a multicultural safety center when immigrants and refugees could go to learn safety tips rather than just getting a pamphlet.

For now, Booker is focused on the next multicultural safety summit on March 9, 2013. This will be a safety camp in which people could learn about water safety, bike safety, food handling tips and much more. She said the Minnesota Department of Health will be a part of this event.

Becki White, a fire and life safety educator with the state fire marshal’s office and a captain with the Eden Prairie Fire Department, said the state fire marshal’s office is more focused on code enforcement, but it has worked with ECHO Minnesota to put on skits about various fire safety tips.

White was at the Sept. 18 summit at the SBM fire station and will be getting a video recording of it to show other fire departments what steps they can take to better educate people in their communities.

“A lot of fire departments focus on response time and how to mitigate problems, but not the people behind the problem,” White said.

Eric Hagen is at

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