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Burn foundation targeting campus fire deaths: Federal grant will help carry DVD's message to thousands of colleges

January 7, 2008

A local not-for-profit has received a $1 million grant to help keep college kids safe from fires, some of which are set as pranks.

The People's Burn Foundation will begin pilot testing a DVD video on fire prevention and mail a final version to nearly 5,000 colleges and 38,000 fire departments, starting in April.

The video was funded largely by a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. It's the latest in a string of grants received by the foundation, which was started in 1997 by the mother of two children who died in a fire.

"To Hell and Back III," which follows other fire-prevention and firefighter-support videos distributed by the Indianapolis foundation, will be its first big outreach to the college-age demographic.

The video may be well-received on campus: it will arrive just six months after an off-campus fire in Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., killed six students from the University of South Carolina and one from Clemson University.

The October fire drew widespread national attention. During this academic year alone, there have been at least 13 campus fire deaths. During the 2006-2007 academic year, 20 students were killed, according to Belchertown, Mass.-based Campus Firewatch.

Fire-prevention efforts tend to be focused on the very young and very old, said Shawn Longerich, executive director of People's Burn Foundation.

"We said, 'Where don't we have burnand fire-protection messages?'"

More than 83 percent of the 125 campus-related fire fatalities since 2000 have been in off-campus housing, said Ed Comeau, publisher of Campus Firewatch.

Among contributing factors: lack of smoke alarms, careless disposal of smoking materials and impaired judgment due to alcohol.

"It's a tough demographic. You have to get their attention and hold it," said Comeau, whose publication and a team of firefighters from around the country helped develop the new DVD.

Don't even get Longerich started about dumb things college-age students do, like the videos on You Tube of students igniting hair spray and then their hair.

The goal of the Burn Foundation video is to reach the nation's 17 million college students-even to have "To Hell and Back III" made mandatory viewing at freshman orientation.

After the holiday break, test groups at 60 colleges will view the video. With that student input, "To Hell and Back III" will be tweaked and a final version cut.

It will be rolled out in April at the 2008 Fire Department Instructors Conference, in Indianapolis, then mass-mailed.

The foundation was begun by Della Hines, who survived a 1991 apartment fire, along with her daughter Jamie, who was 6. Both suffered severe burns. Her children Nick, 2, and Mary, 4, perished in the fire, which was blamed on an electrical short.

In the years following the fire, Hines became friends with Longerich, who at the time was working as a paralegal for Hines' Indianapolis attorney, John Caress. Hines wanted to start a camp for burn victims. In 1997, Hines and Longerich launched the Brave Hearts Network, starting with nine children who attended the first burn camp of its kind in Indiana.

Attendance now tops 50 children a year. The camp has created an extended family for burn survivors and their families.

A major turning point for PBF came in 2003, when 10 men were burned and two killed by a fire that erupted on board a box truck on Interstate 465. One of the painters allegedly lit paint thinner in the back of the truck, where the men were trapped.

Local TV station WTHR-TV Channel 13 shot a documentary of the fire and the subsequent recovery of victims. With the help of former WTHR news anchor Anne Ryder, who'd served on the PBF board, the TV station released its copyright on the documentary and allowed the burn foundation to become the distributor of "To Hell and Back."

In 2004, the Department of Homeland Security awarded PBF $507,000 to distribute the documentary to all of the nation's fire departments.

Tom Hanify, president of the Professional Firefighters Union of Indiana, hailed the production, saying it "will have a lasting impression on firefighters across the country, and they will never forget why it is so important to comply with safety protocol."

Since then, subsequent versions have been made for firefighter and EMS training, along with a version they can share with the public.

Around the same time of "To Hell and Back's" distribution, the foundation, in November 2004, opened the Extinguish the Need House, to provide household essentials to fire victims following American Red Cross intervention.

The house was an extension of Extinguish the Need, a group formed by Broad Ripple High School Key Club members in 1999 in memory of a girl who perished in a fire. PBF opened the house after securing funding from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust, The Indianapolis Foundation and Skinner & Broadbent Co.

Since then, the facility in a retail strip south of Lafayette Square Mall has served more than 200 families. Shelves and racks are lined with everything from clothes to furniture to toys to dishwashing detergent. Families assisted by the center eventually help volunteer there or assist other families displaced by a fire. Everything at the center is donated. Longerich said she could use more help from businesses and their employees willing to help collect items and to do things as simple as inflating air mattresses.

Next on the agenda is taking the Extinguish the Need concept national.

Officials in Allen County have already expressed interest, but Longerich and her staff of five want first to develop a sort of turnkey model for quick deployment. Longerich hopes to team with large national retailers who would agree to provide supplies to Extinguish the Need facilities around the country.
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