Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Toy? or Lighter?

This is something near and dear to my heart.
When Thomas was about 6 months old, I started teaching fire safety classes for Red Cross. I'd been a Red Cross volunteer for about 7 years at that point (I've been a volunteer for 17 years now) and had been to countless house fires, local and national floods, and two hurricanes. I've seen what nature can do to a house and to a body... and what fire can do also, and I wanted to teach kids how to survive- and avoid- fires.

One of most horrifying fires I've ever been to was started by a child playing with a lighter underneath his brother's bed. The boys, who were 8 and 2, I believe, were playing under the bed. It was dark, so the older boy lit a lighter so they could see better. The bed caught on fire, and the older boy backed up from underneath the bed and ran. He was scared- he'd started a fire! He knew he'd get in trouble... so he didn't tell. When his brother's screams got their 8-month-pregnant mother's attention, the bed was fully engulfed in flames. Without regard to her own safety, the mother rushed into the room, dove under the bed, and pulled his burning body out of the fire. She herself was on fire too. I met this family in the burn unit at two different hospitals. The 2 year old was at Children's Hospital, and the mother at neighboring University Hospital. The 2 year old somehow survived; the mother, and the unborn baby, eventually died.

Fires like that are why I started teaching fire safety classes for Red Cross. It was a tragic experience, but not unique. It happens every day, all over the country.

The program I taught was geared toward 3-7 year old children. It covered all of the basics- stop, drop, and roll; what smoke detectors sound like; what firefighters in turnout gear look- and sound- like; and how to get out of a burning building. What it didn't really cover was playing with lighters or matches, so I wrote a special script and created a game just for that purpose.

The game was actually my Mom's idea, and it remains to this day one of the best ideas she's ever come up with. She had the idea of showing kids multiple kinds of lighters and asking them if they knew what they were. I turned that idea into a game of "What's this?". I had a small bag which I filled with about a dozen little toys and lighters. As I pulled each one out, I asked the kids a simple question: What's this? Easy, right?

Not really. The kids got the matches and normal-looking bic lighters right off the bat. Then I'd pull out a few toys, and then go back to the lighters. I'd pull out one of those long-reach lighters, the kids would start throwing out guesses like "A CURLING IRON!", "A LITTLE BLENDER!", and "A TOY GUN!"... but they rarely said "a lighter". I'd show another toy, and then, I'd pull out a little dolphin. It was shiny and cute, about 3 inches long, and... it was a lighter. Not one child- OR adult- ever guessed it was a lighter. I warned the adults not to buy such novelty lighters, and told the kids not to touch anything until they knew exactly what it was, because it just might be a lighter that looks like a toy.

The National Association of State Fire Marshals has also taken notice of these toy-like lighters and is trying to get them banned in the US. The president, John Dean, showed one that looks like a little frog, and accurately described these novelty lighters as "something you would get in a McDonald's Happy Meal". Why do we even need novelty lighters? Do the people that buy them have some unresolved "I never had enough toys as a child" issues? Or do they just see them as cute little lighters and never think about it from a child's point of view.

He is SO right. Several states are sitting up and taking notice, including Oregon where a woman was burned when her child accidently set her bed on fire while playing with a lighter that looked like Santa on top of a Christmas tree. Two children were killed in Arkansas last year while playing with a motorcycle-shaped lighter.

People who market and sell these lighters consider the fire marshal's concerns ridiculous, saying "they're safety lighters- kids can't use them!" But anyone who has a child has observed them figure out a new toy or puzzle with determination and glee. They pick up a new item, explore it, and if it looks interesting enough, they will figure it out.

Every legally sold lighter in the United States meets or exceeds child safety regulations, yet children figure them out and use them all the time. Some times the fire is accidental; some times it's on purpose, but regardless... why make lighters look like toys a child would want to play with? I truly hope that these types of lighters are banned in the United States.

Next time you go to a convenient store, take the time to notice what is being sold at child's-eye level at the register, and you'll find candy... and novelty lighters. I guarantee it.

And yes... every picture featured on this post is a lighter.


  • Hi!
    This is Wendy from the American Red Cross. Thanks for posting this story.

    We'd love to include you in the new "Why I Help" profile page on redcross.org.

    If you're interested in participating, just shoot me an email at HarmanW@usa.redcross.org.


    Thanks again!

    By Blogger Wendy, at 2:47 PM  

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