Firefighters clown for safety

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Al Key/DRC
Buddy (Shane Robert), right, tests a smoke alarm with Santa Claus (Chris Johnson), prompting Booster (Charlie Schenck), right bottom, to crawl toward the door with Flash (Hank Morrow) on their way out of the possibly burning house during a performance of the Denton Fire Department’s Clowns on Fire at Nelson Elementary School on Thursday in Denton.
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Some who watched a group of Denton firefighters perform on stage at Nelson Elementary School on Thursday might have thought they were just clowning around. In fact, they were, but they were also sending a serious message to a crowd of delighted students.

“Get out and stay out,” has been stressed many times by the Denton Fire Department’s Clowns on Fire group this year.

The message teaches children that when they hear a smoke detector go off, they are to keep low to the ground and feel the door knob with the back of a hand to check the temperature before exiting. Once out, they are not to go back inside, the clowns emphasize.

Founding members Charlie Schenck and Chris Johnson said they have been performing at area schools during Fire Prevention Month for 16 years. A third member of the team, Hank Morrow, was later added.

After Morrow joined, the crew varied from year to year until about about eight years ago, when Ray Harder, Collin Skipper, Shane Robert and Micheal Ventrca were added, Schenck said. The group has been traveling from school to school ever since.

Clowns on Fire will perform twice a day, four days a week throughout October, totaling at least 22 shows.

By using approaches proven effective by popular children’s shows, Schneck said, the firefighters learned that children pay more attention and learn better while laughing and being entertained.

This year’s 30-minute skit was themed around Christmas — a time when many fire hazards come into play — and focused not only on fire safety but overall safety, as well.

“This year we realized we hadn’t done the difference between tools and toys, so we added that in,” Schneck said. “Sometimes it could just be one of us notices that kids aren’t wearing helmets much one year — so we do a piece on bike safety.”

An elaborate backdrop for the Christmas skit — complete with fireplace and stockings — was designed and built at the Central Fire Station, 322 E. Hickory St., earlier this summer.

Electrical safety, smoke alarm safety and how to exit safely are some of the more popular topics with audience members, who range from kindergartners to third-graders.

Backstage at a recent performance, members of Clowns on Fire said they enjoy putting a spin on fire safety and will continue to spread the message for years to come.

“We have a good time and kids look forward to it,” a handful of members said in unison while packing up their props.

Their show has became so popular, the team conducts an annual class in Lewisville each year to train others on the techniques that have helped earn them national recognition.

“It’s much easier performing in front of kids than a room full of 300 firemen,” Schneck said.

That’s exactly what they do when attending a national conference in Arizona, he said.

They teach other firefighters that pulling out a certain character or performing a song can be ways of regaining children’s attention.

“We have to lure them back in, and Squidworth, or whatever is popular at the time, will do that,” he said.

In addition to alternating trips in Arizona, Schneck said he helps co-teach at Texas A&M University where he learned the techniques he uses today.

Preparation for next year’s skit will begin as soon as the seven Denton firefighters complete this month’s run.

“We have done Harry Potter-themed, SpongeBob, pirates ... just anything that’s popular that children can relate to,” Schneck said.

The overall goal of the program is prevention and to reduce the loss of life and property, but members of the unit said that they hope if children take away just one lesson, it would be to stay calm no matter what the emergency might be.

“While I do not have hard-line stats to back up the success of this program, I can say, from being a frontline firefighter in this city, the amount of actual working structure fires we have had over the 16 years of this program has been greatly reduced,” Schneck stated in a recent e-mail.

MEGAN GRAY can be reached at 940-566-6885 and via Twitter at @MGrayNews.

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