By Rick Pfeiffer
Niagara Gazette — You can see the eyes of the second-graders widen as "fake" smoke fills the room in the Falls Fire Department's Safety Trailer.
They've listened intently as Fire Safety Education Coordinator Al Hornung has explained to them what to do if a fire breaks out in their home. Now it's time to put the lesson to use.
With a warm door leading out of the room indicating fire on the other side, the kids stay low to the floor, crawl to a window and climb out. Hornung, standing outside, helps them to safety.
As National Fire Prevention Weeks wraps up, this year's message has been learned by the students in the city's elementary schools.
"Every year, we have a different theme for Fire Prevention Week," said Battalion Chief Dan Ciszek, who commands the Fire Prevention Bureau that runs Hornung’s program. "This year it's 'Have Two Ways Out.' If you're trying to get out of a fire and you encounter smoke and flames, you want to have a second way to escape that fire."
Fire Prevention Week officially kicked off on Oct. 8, but Hornung says his work in the schools started much earlier.
"I start (demonstrating) fire prevention the second week of the school year," he said.
Created on the 40th anniversary of the "Great Chicago Fire" of 1871, Hornung tells his eager audience that Fire Prevention Week exists so that there will never be a fire like that again. More than 250 people perished in that deadly blaze.
"You need to know what fo do if there is a fire," Hornung says firmly. You need to know you need smoke alarms in your home (to alert you to a fire), you need to know to stay low if it's smokey, you need to have more than one way out."
Ciszek says firefighters would rather never have to fight a fire if they could avoid it.
"But we're quite certain that's not gonna happen," he said. "So we're trying to address prevention with education and (Fire Prevention Week) is a way of bringing attention to the public about the importance of fire prevention."
While most of the keys to preventing fires, or getting out of them, are common sense, Ciszek said it's easy for people to forget them.
"It's like everything else," he said. "If you're not thinking (about fire prevention) or doing (fire safety drills), it goes by the wayside and people forget."
That's why Ciszek spends his time in the community, at block club meetings and senior citizen centers, preaching fire safety. Hornung, meanwhile, concentrates on the Cataract City schools.
If you can't or don't prevent a fire, Ciszek says early detection is the key survival. That's why he stresses that smoke detectors should be present on every floor of a home or business.
"The most common place for a fire to start is in the kitchen and it's amazing how fast (flames) can spread," Ciszek said.
Hornung, who has been teaching school kids for five years now, tells them most fire deaths occur in bedrooms. He also tells the kids to take what they've learned home, to their parents.
"(The students) come in and they are very attentive," Hornung said. "So I hope they received the message. Over 800 of those who were killed in fires last year were under the age or 15. I tell them, 'You have to keep your home, fire safe.' "