ANN ARBOR, Mich. - It was not how Grosse Pointe mother of four Kathleen Ninivaggi imagined her family’s spring break trip ending this year: Her 14-year-old son banging on her bedroom door to tell her their beach-side, South Carolina rental home was on fire.
The source of the flames that ultimately razed the seven-bedroom house on Myrtle Beach didn’t seem so malicious: Pinky-sized firecrackers Ninivaggi’s teenage children had bought at a nearby fireworks stand, unbeknownst to her.
The whole family escaped the fire unharmed. But back home in Michigan, Ninivaggi enrolled all of her children – ages 14,15,16 and 17 – in the University of Michigan Trauma Burn Center’s free Straight Talk program so they could understand how close they came to a much grimmer scenario.
The 13-year-old program was selected as one of only eight exemplary youth fire-setting prevention and intervention programs to be highlighted by the United States Fire Administration for this year’s Arson Awareness Week May 6-12. The issue of juvenile fire play is especially pressing as Michigan approaches its first Fourth of July following the legalization of fireworks.
Straight Talk targets youth ages 8-17 who exhibit behaviors associated with the misuse of fire – including playing with matches, lighters or fireworks, fire-setting, or arson – and those who may simply be curious about experimenting with fire. It is believed to be the only hospital-based program of its kind in the country.
This isn’t the first time the program has gained national accolades. Early results from a research study published in the medical literature Journal of Trauma showed the recidivism rate of fire play for Straight Talk participants was less than 1 percent versus 36 percent in the matched cohort group who did not attend the program.
The video “In An Instant,” which portrays the devastating medical consequences of burns and that is used in the program, also won the Cine Golden Eagle Award in 2002, and the coveted Freddie award in 2003. It was funded byFriends of the U-M Health System.
At a recent Straight Talk session, through interactive education, the Ninivaggi family received information on the medical, social, legal and financial consequences of the misuse of fire, and received a home safety information package.
Ninivaggi says her children never imagined that the tiny, $10 firecrackers they lit off a balcony could cause so much damage. The remnants had bounced off the dry beach grass below, sparking a fast-growing, out-of-control fire.
“Running out the back door of a house on fire was a horrifying experience,” Ninivaggi says. “We lost all of our luggage and the kids’ computers and phones but that was just stuff. What we took away from this program was how much worse it could have been and how lucky we were.”
The Straight Talk program was launched in 1999, with the support of theBloomfield Township Firefighters Charities, after the Trauma Burn Center saw a 17 percent increase in pediatric burns.
“Children have a natural curiosity and interest in fire,” says Leora Bowden, LMSW clinical social worker, Trauma Burn Service. “This program is about educating them about the ramifications of fire and burn injury – which can be truly devastating. One mistake can change a life forever.”
Fires started by children accounted for an average of 56,300 fires linked to 110 civilian deaths, 880 civilian injuries and $286 million in direct property damage per year between 2005 and 2009, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
“This is a very specialized program that addresses the regional and national issue of juvenile fire setting,” says New Baltimore Police Chief Timothy P. Wiley, MPA, a Straight Talk presenter. “Setting a fire causes a chain of reaction that can have irreparable consequences for families and communities.”
For more information, visit the Straight Talk website.