Thirty years of fire safety

Valley Stream fire education program celebrates 2,000th student taught

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Special-education students at Congregation Ohr Torah in North Woodmere giggled and talked as they waited for a fire safety program to begin on a Thursday in mid-November.

“A real firefighter,” one exclaimed. They hopped out of their seats as two veteran members of the Valley Stream Fire Department entered the classroom of 7- to 9-year-old children. While it appeared to be a big day for the students, it was also a significant moment for the two men, Ron Garofalo and Fred Gless — who passed an important milestone this month.

It has been 30 years since the pair created the fire-safety program for people of all ages, and they had instructed their 2,000th student, possibly saving lives in the process.

“Programs like this didn’t exist when I was younger, because firefighters were available at fire stations, but they never came to the schools,” Skellington said. “Programs like this put knowledge in the kids’ minds that they can’t get from anywhere else.”

As the students settled down, the firefighters led them through an interactive learning experience about what to do during a fire. They watched a short film about fire safety, and visited the firefighters’ truck, Engine 343, from Valley Stream Engine Company No. 3. At the end of the two-hour program, each child received a red plastic firefighter’s hat and fire-safety coloring book. 

Since 1988, when Garofalo and Skellington started their fire safety program, they have taught 2,079 people, including regular and special-education students at grammar and high schools throughout Valley Stream and the surrounding neighborhoods; Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts; and adults of all education levels at events such as health fairs and club meetings for groups like the Italian American Society.

Each lesson, Garofalo explained, is tailored to the audience. “Children are more likely to hide in bathtubs, closets and other areas in their homes and buildings during a fire, so this program teaches them how to stay low and go in the case of a fire,” Garofalo, 72, a 54-year firefighter, said. “Younger students and special education students tend to have a shorter attention span, so we tried to cater the program to those students and to accommodate what the teachers were looking for.”

He said he began the fire safety program with the hope of decreasing the number of deaths in fires, and to educate children on how to escape a blaze.

During their class, the two firefighters taught children to crawl when escaping a fire to avoid inhaling too much smoke. Additionally, the children also learned that every house should have at least one working fire detector. They were advised to establish a meeting place outside the house. Garofalo and Skellington also taught the children to look for a stuffed animal, sheet, or pillow to stick outside the nearest window to alert firefighters that someone is trapped in the burning building.

Company No. 3 firefighter Tatiana Ochoa, 22, helped show off the truck. She said the education program taught students valuable lessons and the role that firefighters play.

“It’s important for kids to know the importance of what firefighters do because it’s more than just a shiny red truck,” she said. “Firefighters can also look intimidating to little kids, so programs like this help teach the kids there’s nothing to be afraid of because we are here to help them.”

Dr. Sara Seplowitz, a teacher at the center, said she was impressed with the way the program was tailored to students’ needs. “The program was very visual and hands-on, and that’s how our kids learn best because we are a self-contained special-needs school,” she said. “This really brought fire safety education to them in a very practical way, especially for kids who might be afraid of noises or fires.”

While Garofalo and Skellington couldn’t say how many lives have been saved through their teachings, on at least two occasions, Garofalo said, they heard of former students who escaped fires in their homes because they remembered what they had been taught in the program.

“A little girl knew enough to get her whole family out of their burning home at 6 a.m., when their front door caught on fire,” he said, and recalled moments when students thanked him because his fire safety program helped them. “On another occasion a family knew to stay low and get out, so we know our program works.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified one of the firefighters giving a fire safety lesson at Congregation Ohr Torah. He is Fred Gless, not Rick Skellington. We apologize for the error.