Firefighter Bjorn Stolpe crawls towards kindergarteners in Erin Willis’ class. (Photo by Erin Willis)

If a kid encounters firefighters in a real emergency, they might be scared about the fire. On top of that, fireproof suits can seem alien and scary if kids don’t know there is a person inside. So, Petersburg Fire Department calls this week “Learn Not to Burn.” Every year at this time, they visit classrooms to teach kids fire safety and to show off those cool outfits.

All the kindergarteners in Erin Willis’s class are sitting criss-cross apple sauce on the carpet. They just finished watching a cartoon about fire safety. In the video, animals safely escape from a house fire. Today, three firefighters are joining the class to talk about fire safety. Bjorn Stolpe starts putting on his fire-fighting uniform, piece by piece. 

Fire Marshall Ryan Welde tells the class about the gear. He says, “You see he’s got the buttons and Velcro and so all of it sealed up really good. So, nothing gets inside of the coat.”

Stolpe puts on his self-contained breathing apparatus or SCBA. Welde says, “That’s a backpack just like a normal backpack, but it has an aerosol and on it, so we can get fresh air and breathe fresh air.”

Dave Berg has been with the department since the mid-1980’s. He says seeing a firefighter for the first time in an emergency can be extra scary. “To kids, that can be a real traumatizing situation. So, we try to try to encourage them to ask questions and, and to look up close to see that there’s actually a firefighter inside the gear.”

In the classroom, Welde helps the kids get used to the breathing apparatus.  He says, “Does it kind of sound like Darth Vader? You all know who Darth Vader is? Yeah, that funny breathing.”

The firefighters explain that kids might see them moving around on the ground during an emergency. Stolpe starts crawling towards the kids, army-style. The kindergarteners shriek and scoot away to avoid him. Some of them look afraid and others are playing. The firefighters say this same thing might happen if there’s a fire.

Welde tells the kids they shouldn’t move away. “Don’t hide from firefighters we’re there to help.”

Then, there is a very popular question-and-answer time with the firefighters. Well, maybe not questions exactly, but lots of kids want to share. Hayden McCay has an idea. She says, “If the fire man in his house gets on fire. He can just put his outfit on if the fire is not in the room.”

Welde says, “Yes and No. But we keep this at the fire station is where we keep the stuff. And we get dressed in a fire station.”

Mateo Maldonado also wants to share. He says, “Every time when I go near smoke at the campfire I get kind of sick.”

Welde says that’s for a good reason. He says, “Because it’s not good to breathe. We want to stay away from the smoke.”

The firefighters try to leave the kids with a few important take-aways. Welde asks, “What do you do if your clothes were to catch fire?”

The kids answer in unison:Stop, drop and roll.

In the video they watched, the cartoon kids knew they shouldn’t go back inside to find their pet cat. Now, Stolpe asks, “If you have a dog or a cat or fish in the house, should you go looking for it?”

All the kids say “no!” in unison.

Stolpe says, “Let  the fire department go look for your cat or your dog.”

As the firefighters leave, Mrs. Willis rounds up the kids for circle time.

Berg says the department also sees this week as a way for kids to make sure their families are prepared for fires. “This is a good time of year that we remind the kids to change their batteries on their smoke detector to go over fire safety plans with their parents.”

Petersburg Fire Department’s “Learn Not to Burn” program is part of national fire week. Firefighters and volunteers visit all grades in the elementary and middle schools.