With more than five dozen side-by-side educational events behind them, Les and Diane Woods have become well known across the Southeastern U.S. and beyond for their ambitious home fire sprinkler advocacy. Their dedication to the cause continues today, making them a true “fire-power” couple.
It all started when the Tega Cay, SC Volunteer Fire Department signed up for HFSC’s Built for Life program. “We were one of the first to sign up,” says Les, a resident state fire marshal, and a division chief for the department. Soon the Tega Cay Fire Department applied for a Built for Life home fire sprinkler educational stipend from HFSC. “We were awarded a stipend, and with that and donations from five companies we got a trailer and started scheduling side-by-side burns,” he says.
“Off we went!” adds Diane, a fire prevention officer and Lieutenant with the Tega Cay Volunteer Fire Department. “We thought the side-by-sides would be the best way to educate children and families, and they are. The first one we did was in Fort Mill and a contractor brought his two kids to see it. When it was over he promised them he would never build another house without installing sprinklers.”
Because side-by-side demonstrations so dramatically and effectively contrast flashover and fire sprinkler activation, HFSC has done a lot over the years to encourage the fire service to use them. This includes stipends like the Woods’ fire department received and free online resources to help fire departments of any type or size build and use side-by-sides for long-lasting public education outreach.
“We’ve done a lot of side-by-sides in parking lots, at colleges, with fire departments that would hold festivals… really anywhere,” Diane adds, noting that college events are especially impactful. “It was good to reach these kids in college because they’re going to be living in apartments and become homeowners someday and they need to know to ask for sprinklers.”
In the seven years since their department joined the Built for Life Fire Department program, the couple installed fire sprinklers in their own home (the first in their county to do so); coordinated side-by-side events from Mississippi to North Carolina, including one in Myrtle Beach, SC that is credited with having the largest documented audience; and become regulars on the speaking circuit. The duo has traveled from Texas to Vermont to date, teaching members of the sprinkler industry and the fire service the keys to successful side-by-side events.
One of those keys is to coordinate with others in the community to maximize the impact of seeing flashover and fire sprinklers side-by-side. “With these side-by-sides, whether we reach 30, 60 or thousands of people at the event, the big impact is the people who watch it on TV later, often tens of thousands,” Les says, noting they work with local fire service PIOs to ensure the media are invited to attend the events. They’re always well-publicized in advance to get the largest crowds, Diane says. “We put notifications in periodicals and newspapers, and put signs up in businesses.”
“We want to educate as many people as possible,” Les says of their comprehensive strategy. It works. “When we did one in Biloxi MS, the TV station reached lower Mississippi and Alabama and they gave us five minutes of airtime.”
In addition to HFSC’s Built for Life Fire Department Program and their support of Home Fire Sprinkler Week, the Woods are active with the South Carolina Fire Sprinkler Coalition, one of 30 coalitions working in cooperation with the NFPA Fire Sprinkler Initiative.
“We’re both volunteers and have devoted a good part of our lives the last seven years educating about home fire sprinklers,” Les says. “We want people to ask for fire sprinklers when they’re building a home.” Although the couple shows no signs of slowing down their public education passion, they are now transitioning from their house to a smaller home. “Sprinklered, of course,” Diane says. “We will never live in an unsprinklered home, ever. We always tell people, we’re firefighters, but we like having a firefighter in every room.”