On September 1, 1998, every family’s nightmare came true for the Holley family of Plano, Texas, when an electrical fire burned their home virtually to the ground. Thanks to a homework assignment 9-year-old Jessica Holley received, which required that the family create and practice a home fire escape plan, every family member knew exactly what to do when the fire broke out. Jessica’s assignment was part of a public education effort by NFPA, formerly the National Fire Protection Association. Jessica’s mother directly attributes the assignment with saving her family, noting that if the fire had occurred a few days earlier the results might have been very different.

NFPA began developing a three-year public education program on escape planning in 1997 for launch in 1998, when the organization began to suspect that few people were planning ahead of fire. NFPA commissioned Burke Marketing to pinpoint the American public’s perceptions of fire and the need to develop and practice home fire escape plans. Results of the survey showed that Americans have many misconceptions about fire that contribute to a lack of planning. The survey indicated that people feel safest from fire in their homes. However, with 80 percent of all U.S. fire deaths occurring in the home, it actually represents the place of greatest risk. The survey further revealed that only 16 percent of respondents had developed and practiced a home fire escape plan.

NFPA launched a three-year Fire Prevention Week campaign in 1998 on home fire escape planning, called “Fire Drills: The Great Escape!”  With an overall participation to date of almost 6 million families, NFPA has documented a total of 69 lives saved as a direct result of “The Great Escape” over the past three years. 

Background –The centerpiece of “The Great Escape” is a unified North American fire drill, which takes place during the Wednesday of Fire Prevention Week. To track program participation, NFPA developed contests for children, fire departments, and educators. The child who wins the contest receives a “great escape” vacation for four to Walt Disney World; the fire department that submitted the winning child’s entry receives $1,000 worth of NFPA educational materials; and a participating teacher is randomly selected to receive a free computer. 

Fire Prevention Week 2000 Planning – By the third year of “The Great Escape,” NFPA had successfully used post-campaign follow up with fire departments to hone messaging and strategy. The strategic objectives included:

  • Effectively tracking program participation
  • Expanding the reach of “The Great Escape” messages to a broader public audience
  • Broadening the program’s reach to and interaction with school teachers
  • Increasing the number of families who develop and practice a home fire escape plan 
  • Generating interest from federal legislators in “The Great Escape.”

With an internal budget of $175,000, and approximately $850,000 in financial contributions and in-kind services from funding partners (Federal Emergency Management Agency, KIDDE Safety, Lowe’s Home Safety Council, and The USAA Educational Foundation), NFPA developed an integrated communications program that used paid, interactive, and earned media to achieve its objectives. NFPA also incorporated tactics it had never before used including involving “saved” families in communication efforts and specifically reaching out to teachers.


Fire service toolkit – NFPA distributed a free “toolkit” of fire prevention and home escape planning materials to every fire department in North America (approximately 37,000 departments). The kit included education materials and lesson plans for teaching home fire escape planning, preparation materials for “The Great Escape” fire drill and contests, and a mini-media relations guide for promoting the campaign locally.

Weekly Reader Tie In – NFPA expanded its work with teachers by contracting with Weekly Reader magazine. Almost 300,000 teachers throughout the United States and Canada received NFPA information and lesson plans for teaching home fire escape planning. Teachers were clearly impressed with the information – 90 percent of teachers surveyed by Weekly Reader rated the materials as “above average” to “excellent.”

The Kindergarten and Grade 1 editions of Weekly Reader also devoted one entire issue to fire safety. As a result, more than two million students at these grade levels devoted their Weekly Reader class time entirely to “The Great Escape.”

Fire Prevention Week 2000 launch  – NFPA officially launched Fire Prevention Week the Wednesday prior to the week with a kick-off event, coordinated by Fleishman-Hillard, on Capitol Hill. In addition to the association’s own safety expert, NFPA enlisted the help of the Holley family; members of Congress, including Fire Prevention Week 2000 honorary chairperson Senator Edward Kennedy; and members of the fire service.

Web-based communication – NFPA developed a centralized, Web-based location for Fire Prevention Week information for parents, members of the fire service, educators, media, and others. By publicizing www.firepreventionweek.org and including materials such as downloadable escape plan templates and resources for the fire service, NFPA and Fleishman-Hillard successfully doubled the number of “hits” to the site over 1999 numbers. In addition, NFPA included information and interactive escape planning games on their popular www.sparky.org Web site for children.

Public Service Announcements – NFPA collaborated with Emmy Award-winning PBS television series, This Old House, to develop 30- and 15-second public service announcements (PSAs) on developing and practicing a home fire escape plan. The PSAs, featuring Host Steve Thomas and Master Carpenter Norm Abram, aired in more than 280 markets in the United States.

Satellite Media Tour – On the day of “The Great Escape” fire drill, NFPA and Fleishman-Hillard again enlisted the help of a “saved” family for a satellite media tour. With NFPA expert Meri-K Appy, 14-year old Shane Serafin from suburban Chicago told 27 media outlets how his family was prepared when fire damaged their home, thanks to a previously developed home fire escape plan. The results of the tour were among NFPA’s most successful ever, earning coverage in major markets including San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Denver.

Other program tactics – In addition to the tactics mentioned above, NFPA provided assistance to local fire departments for “The Great Escape” North American Fire Drill, and coordinated efforts to secure a presidential proclamation for Fire Prevention Week 2000. NFPA and Fleishman-Hillard also conducted ongoing media relations activities with national and local media before, during, and after the campaign. NFPA provided media with news releases, fact sheets, home fire escape planning b-roll, and videotaped and live interviews with Shane Serafin and Meri-K Appy.


Fire Prevention Week 2000 was one of NFPA’s most successful public education efforts to date, meeting and exceeding NFPA’s strategic objectives. Results of the campaign included:

  • NFPA generated more than 500 million media impressions through the public service announcement and local and national media coverage. NFPA placed a letter to “Dear Abby” from Senator Kennedy in support of home fire escape planning during Fire Prevention Week. The letter appeared in major newspapers including The Boston Herald, New York Newsday, The New York Post, and The Chicago Tribune. The public service announcement contributed to a substantial increase in impressions over previous years.
  • Through Weekly Reader and the contests, NFPA has received documentation that more than 5 million families created and practiced a home fire escape plan as a result of the 2000 campaign, a substantial increase over 1999 when 500,000 people participated in the program. The new approach of including Weekly Reader in the tactical mix was directly responsible for 90 percent of participants.
  • Since the program’s launch in 1998, 74 lives have been saved as a result of “The Great Escape.”
  • NFPA successfully reached a broader audience of educators with Fire Prevention Week messages through the Weekly Reader. According to the publication’s statistics, the information reached approximately 300,000 teachers. Impressed by the information, 90 percent of teachers surveyed by Weekly Reader rated the materials as “above average” to “excellent.”
  • NFPA and Fleishman-Hillard effectively engaged three prominent legislators in publicly supporting Fire Prevention Week and home fire escape planning. Senator Kennedy, Representative William Delahunt (D-MA), and Representative Lois Capps (D-CA) each publicly commended NFPA and “The Great Escape” for helping to save and protect lives.