Extending the safety net

Kris Siegert peaking through a window wearing fire safety gear and a mask.
Firefighter and fire safety educator Kris Siegert had a close call during a house fire with a young man who had Down Syndrome and did not know how to react to the blaze. This inspired him to tailor his lessons to reach students in life skills classes.

t. Lebanon Fire Department Lt. Kris Siegert still remembers every detail from that Thursday morning in December, 2017. Flames were shooting from the bedroom window of a home located just a few blocks from the fire station.

When firefighters arrived, they found a boy with Down Syndrome unconscious inside. He had been hiding in his mother’s bedroom to escape the flames.

“He was a 17-year-old that didn’t know he needed to get out,” said Siegert, who serves as the department’s fire and life safety educator. The boy was hospitalized, but ultimately made a full recovery.

Firefighters on the scene quickly started to realize that while they’ve provided extensive fire and life safety training inside public and private schools across Mt. Lebanon for more than 30 years, they weren’t reaching many students with disabilities with those same lessons.

Siegert became determined to change that.

“It’s literally the most vulnerable people we have in town that we weren’t reaching,” he said. “It’s a small group, but these are vulnerable kids.”

Setting the course

In a traditional classroom, Siegert, known best throughout Lebo as Firefighter Kris, provides age-appropriate lessons for kids in kindergarten through fifth grade, through a curriculum established by the National Fire Protection Association.

But Siegert wanted to extend the program to reach all students. He began searching for a program geared toward students in life skills classes that he could adapt. After extensive research, Siegert found that there wasn’t really a fire safety program geared toward those students.

So, he took it upon himself to create one. It turned into a passion project.

“I don’t want a repeat of what started the program. For all of us here, our worst nightmare is having to pull a kid out of a fire,” he said. “If there’s something that we can do, we’re going to do it.”

Siegert met with Mt. Lebanon School District’s director of special education Heather Doyle and inclusion specialists Tina Beer and Mike Houck to craft a plan. He knew what the students needed to learn and they knew how to get the message across to this demographic. They focused on the important skills that students need, like not playing with matches and crawling to safety below the smoke.

“I think it’s great that Kris thought of doing this and that the Mt. Lebanon Fire Department is so invested in teaching these skills to all students,” Doyle said. “Not all communities are fortunate enough to have a fire department that really takes this education component seriously and making sure that all students—including students that you have to teach this to in a different way—have the tools they need to be safe.”

Siegert entered a life skills classroom in the district for the first time in 2018. Life skills classrooms are for students who need to learn functional life skills that could include anything from social interactions to functional academic learning.

Siegert visits both mainstream and life skills classes in the elementary schools twice a year. He later returns to visit students in life skills classrooms every year in high school. The students learn the same set of lessons each year to ensure the messages stick.

“Many of our students that take part in this program need multiple repetition of the materials,” Doyle said. Some also struggle with generalizations and need to see or take specific actions to relate to the task, like actually practicing “stop, drop and roll” instead of just hearing what they’re supposed to do.

With smaller class sizes, Siegert can adapt the lesson to meet each student’s needs. The teachers are a big help in making this happen.

“Sometimes it’s an introductory, ‘Hey, this is who we are. This is what we do. We’re friends.’ And then we go through slow, gradual introductions to things. As they get to the point where they’re ready to learn more, we’re there and ready,” he said.

In the high school life skills classes, students learn everything from their address (we live in Mt. Lebanon, not Pittsburgh) to the difference between helpful and harmful fires (A campfire or birthday candles versus wild, unattended flames). Siegert is continuously working to improve the program. He sees what does and doesn’t work with the students and makes the appropriate changes.

See, hear, touch, do

Sydney Chun weaking firefighting uniform standing next to Kris Siegert outside.
Firefighter Kris Siegert with Mt. Lebanon High School freshman Sidney Chun. Siegert, who teaches fire safety in schools, was searching for a program geared toward students in life skills classes. When he didn’t find anything, he started his own program.

Students also learn in a hands-on way inside the life skills classrooms.

“It’s really important with the life skills students that you guide them in the right direction,” said teacher Tess Apke, who teaches secondary life skills classes during the district’s extended school year summer program.

Firefighter Kris makes sure the lessons are fun while still educational. That keeps the students interested.

“He really individualizes the instruction to cater to each child. Some kids get it right away in the life skills class, but other kids don’t understand and they’ll continue to ask questions. He always caters to what they need,” Apke said.

When teaching stop, drop and roll, Siegert will show the students how it’s done. Then, it’s their turn.  Siegert often ends up dropping down on the ground right alongside the students to ensure they learn the lesson.

He even brings in a plastic smoke screen that he flaps above the students to teach them to stay low and crawl to safety. The youngsters love this lesson and bear-crawling under the faux smoke with Siegert.

This lesson touches on all senses and drives the message home.

Kris Siegert in a classroom, holding black plastic as a child crawls underneath teaching about fire safety.
Siegert simulates a layer of smoke to reinforce the safest way to get through a burning building.

“The kids get to hear it. Then, they get to see it. Then, they get to do it,” Apke said. This provides that oh-so-needed reinforcement.

In a mainstream second-grade classroom, Siegert will give students homework where they are tasked with coming up with a meeting place outside that they would run to in case of a fire.

During the life skills classes, he teams up with the teachers to pull up an image of each student’s home on Google maps. Together, they find a safe place where the student can head during an emergency. In some cases it’s a tree in their front yard, while other times it’s a fire hydrant or a yard sign. This provides them with direction and takes away any guesswork.

For the summer program, during a normal year, students even get to visit the fire station and try on fire gear. This summer, Apke wanted to make sure the program happened, despite all the COVID restrictions. So she reached out to Siegert to line up the training. “I think it’s even more important than it usually is because people are spending more time at home,” she said.

While the students weren’t able to take a field trip to the fire station, Siegert brought a fire truck and gear to them.

Parent packets also are sent home to ensure that they’re aware of all that their child has learned.

‘It needs to go beyond our borders’

Heather Doyle and Mike Houck standing in empty hallway at a Mt. Lebanon school.
Heather Doyle, Mt. Lebanon School District’s director of special education and inclusion specialist Mike Houck, along with inclusion specialist Tina Beers (not pictured), worked with Siegert to develop the syllabus for the course.

During the school year, Apke works as a third-grade teacher in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. She wishes all of her students would have the chance to learn fire safety lessons like the ones provided in Mt. Lebanon.

“The families in Lebo are very lucky to have this program,” she said. “You can never talk about this stuff too much.”

The pandemic created a challenge for the program. But, Siegert still found a way to teach a lesson virtually to an audience that expanded outside of Mt. Lebanon’s borders.

Devika Manoj, a senior at Lambert High School in Suwanee, Georgia, and the founder of Blooming Seeds, an organization geared toward providing free science and health education for children in life skills classes, came across the Mt. Lebanon Special Needs Fire Safety program through a Google search.

She was looking for groups to partner with to continue teaching local youth during the pandemic. Manoj was immediately drawn to the uniqueness and mission of the Mt. Lebanon program.

“I know of multiple children with special needs who have been in a fire or emergency situation, but were unaware of what to do,” said Manoj. “Teaching fire safety is so important, especially for the special needs community as they do not usually have access to inclusive and adapted emergency resources.”

Blooming Seeds partnered with Siegert, who taught a virtual program last year to roughly 20 attendees from Mt. Lebanon, Georgia, Florida and California.

“Before participating in the program, the participants were unsure of what to do in an emergency. However, they came out of the program confident on skills like calling 911,” she said.

Siegert hopes to someday work with others outside of Mt. Lebanon so that this program continues to reach a wider audience. For Mt. Lebanon students, this has become a vital program.

Fire Chief Nick Sohyda gives all of the credit to Siegert for the program’s success.

“He identified that there was a need, and he built the program to address it,” Sohyda said.

Photos by Ken Lager, John Schisler, and Tess Apke