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Firefighters bring safety to schools: New program focuses on prevention

Bemidji volunteer fireman Bruce Hemstad joined fifth-graders at Lincoln Elementary School for lunch this past week as part of a Bemidji Fire Department program to better connect with the community and for fire prevention learning. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

Crystal Dey

BEMIDJI — Firefighters may have set a record for visits to elementary schools in Bemidji in March.

They’re not responding to calls, they’re preventing them.

Capt. Justin Sherwood has developed two programs that are designed to create a more “fire-smart” community. Sherwood said fire departments have historically been reactive, and the community is getting to a point where prevention should be a priority.

“We feel we can protect more people and save more lives through education than responding to an emergency,” Sherwood said. “Hopefully after interactions we will have a smarter population out there reducing fire deaths.”

Statistically, the Bemidji area has had 11 casualties since 2008. Casualties include severe burns and deaths. In the BFD protection area, there have been 44 fire deaths in the past 30 years. The area ranks second outside the metro area for casualties.

“Deaths are really the driving force for me,” Sherwood said. “We don’t want any more kids to die in fires.”

Students And Firefighters Engage rolled out the first week of March. Through the SAFE mentoring program, firefighters volunteer to visit one of nine schools, public and private, in the Bemidji area during lunch.

Sherwood said the intention is to visit with kids as a community member and a friend so they become comfortable with firefighters and their occupation.

“We don’t want kids being afraid of cops and firefighters. We’re helpers,” Sherwood said.

In a positive light

The Bemidji Police Department and Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office started lunchtime school visits about a year ago.

Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin said officers visit schools in the city limits when call volume allows. Police also visit the Boys and Girls Club in Bemidji. In the past year, the department has made more than 80 visits to elementary schools.

“It’s an initiative to get police officers in positive contact with kids,” Mastin said.

Both the middle school and high school already have school safety officers. Mastin said the school visits help kids understand police aren’t around only when bad things happen, they’re not the “boogeyman.”

Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp said the visits are beneficial to help kids see the people behind the uniform and badge. Hodapp said the school visits serve a dual purpose: to get kids comfortable with officers and for officers to get familiar with layout of schools and interact with students and teachers.

“Familiarity with the layout of the building better prepares law enforcement when responding to an emergency,” Hodapp said.

The sheriff’s office visits schools outside the city limits including Kelliher, Blackduck, Solway and the parochial schools. Hodapp said the sheriff’s office started the visits after meeting with the Bemidji School District and discussing ways to make the schools safer.

Sherwood said the SAFE program has been well received by both staff and students so far. He said he wants parents to know that public safety is actively working to prevent all types of emergencies.

“The teachers and the principals are excited about it,” Sherwood said. “The kids just start laughing and we hear ‘Come sit with me!’”

Safety house

The BFD’s second program is the fire safety house program which will be travelling to each school in May and June. Sherwood said the goal is to come in contact with every third grade student in the Bemidji Fire Department protection area.

“A third-grade student is kind of our target audience because after third grade it seems like we kind of lose kids in the system. They get busy with all kinds of other things,” Sherwood said.

The fire safety house is a mobile classroom designed to resemble a house. Using the equipped trailer, firefighters will run students through different safety stations and teach important fire and life safety lessons such as burn safety tips, the importance of smoke alarms, the Stop, Drop and Roll technique, prevention of cooking fires and teaching children how to correctly make a 911 call. The safety house is also available for mutual aid partners.

“It really costs the schools nothing,” Sherwood said. “We just have such a strong passion about education and prevention. This is something we need to do.”

The programs have been in the works for the past six months and continue to evolve. Sherwood said a cold weather education program will eventually be incorporated.

On Feb. 27, 6-year-old Mercedes Mayfield was found deceased outside a south Bemidji apartment complex. She died of hypothermia after being exposed to extreme cold conditions.

“I hate to say that, it’s us reacting to an unfortunate accident,” Sherwood said. “Hopefully we can learn something from it and prevent something like this from ever happening again.”

Sherwood has a background in education and studied to be an elementary education teacher. He coordinates the BFD’s public education initiatives. A college fire safety program, fire safety for older adults and community-wide CPR event are in the works.

“Unfortunately in my short career I’ve been exposed to death, dying, trauma,” Sherwood said. “Things that could have been prevented through a little education.”

The Bemidji Fire Department’s website, accessuble at, has interactive tools that can aid parents, educators and kids in learning about safety. The department, along with the Bemidji Police Department and Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office, also has an active Facebook page where it shares information.

Crystal Dey
Crystal Dey covers crime, courts, tribal relations and social issues for The Bemidji Pioneer in Bemidji, Minnesota. Originally from Minnesota’s Iron Range, Dey has worked for the Echo Press in Alexandria, Minnesota, The Forum in Fargo, North Dakota, The Tampa Tribune in Tampa, Florida, the Hartford Courant in Hartford and West Hartford News in West Hartford, Connecticut. Dey studied Mass Communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead with an emphasis in Online Journalism. Follow Crystal Dey on Twitter @Crystal_Dey.
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