Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

I’ve rather let posts to this blog slip whilst I’ve been out talking to people and collecting data, not to mention listening back to all those conversations, reading field notes and trying to make sense of it all. But now, as the fog is just starting to clear, is perhaps a good time to return to it and start sharing some of things I’m finding.

Amongst the themes that are emerging is the fact that people really don’t think fire is all that important. A woman who has lived for sixteen years in an area with a particularly high rate of fires in the home told me that she had only ever seen one house fire. Against the perception that fire is a rare event that happens to others, people feel they have much more important things to worry about.

Another important theme centres around the failure of public services of all types to really get to grips with engaging effectively with some sections of a diverse community. For a whole range of reasons many people just aren’t interested in engaging with services, or hearing or acting on the messages they try to get across.

But what has all this got to do with the only bit of French I can remember—Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more it changes, the more it stays the same)? Well, I’ve been putting together a proposal for a conference paper recently, and the particular conference I’m hoping to present at celebrates its twentieth year this year. To mark this, the organisers are asking presenters to review the state of the field twenty years ago and relate their presentation to this. Community fire safety as a concept was in its infancy twenty years ago and the Home Secretary, who was responsible for Fire Services in those days, put together a task force to look at it. They published their report, Safe as Houses1, in 1997, and I dug it out to have a look at the other day.

And what do you know, they said pretty much the same things back then. On the perception of fire risk the report notes

The public in general feel remote from the dangers of fire. Only 4% of the public consider they are likely to have a fire in the home while the respective figures for burglary and
road accidents are 44% and 35%. Because of this, it is not ‘top of mind’

Elsewhere the report observes

Existing techniques and approaches have clearly not made sufficient impact on changing the attitudes and behaviour of those in greatest danger of having a fire in the home. Fire safety messages have not been heard or do not appear to have been acted upon by those most at risk

The authors suggest that the term “hard to reach” is inaccurate, arguing, in essence, that the groups they need to reach are reached easily because they watch a lot of TV. But they are hard to influence—they haven’t responded to the message. I think this distinction is somewhat artificial. If they haven’t responded you can’t really claim to have reached them. It remains the case 20 years on, though, that efforts to reduce the incidence of fire have been markedly more successful amongst some communities than amongst others. The message still isn’t being heard in some quarters. My job now is to work out why that is, and what can be done to change it.

  1. Community Fire Safety Task Force (1997) Safe as Houses: The Report of the Community Fire Safety Task Force [online] London: DCLG. available from <> []

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