There are around 7,000 (mostly deliberate) grassfires in Wales each year which endanger lives and property; impact local businesses, tourism and the countryside; and destroy wildlife and forestry resources. Such deliberate fires cost South Wales Fire and Rescue Service (SWFRS) around £7m annually.
The problem peaks during the Spring “grassfire season”, particularly around Easter, when last year’s drying grass and bracken coincides with idle hands during the school holidays, creating a combustible mix. Years of conventional educational initiatives had failed to deter fire-setting, and grassfires continue to cause serious problems for communities, SWFRS, the Police and Forestry Commission.
As an alternative approach, SWFRS worked with academics from Cardiff University to develop and evaluate an integrated social marketing campaign to change public behaviour, reduce grassfire incidence and pioneer a new methodology to apply to other fire-related behavioural change initiatives. The University academics supplied the social marketing expertise that informed the development of the outreach and engagement activities, and the formative research behind them, and provided the necessary evaluation and statistical analysis skills to assess their impact.
The campaign aimed to reduce grassfires in the Tonypandy target area (one of two communities where the problem was most acute) by 15% during the 2010 Easter period. The secondary objectives were to promote socially positive alternative behaviours whilst limiting opportunities for fire-setting, and to encourage a more holistic approach to tackling the problem amongst all the community’s stakeholders.
The project was based on in-depth interview and focus group research into the attitudes, behaviours and knowledge of potential ‘customers’ and other stakeholders to understand the issue, and then develop an intervention campaign. The analysis of the interviews by the academic partners revealed that:
- Fire-setters were predominantly young males, but included a wide range of youngsters, not just the obviously disaffected ones
- Motivations were boredom, thrill-seeking, attention seeking, peer pressure, natural curiosity and experimentation
- Valleys communities perceived fires as a nuisance, but saw starting them as relatively ‘harmless’ and ‘risk-free fun’ and as something that had become both a seasonal tradition and a social norm
- Many people believed that ‘something should be done’, but few believed that the situation could be changed
- People underestimated the costs of the fires and overestimated Fire Service resources to tackle the problem
Outreach and Engagement Programme
The campaign involved local youngsters in promoting more positive alternative behaviours by using a Youth Advisory Board of teenagers from Tonypandy Community College who helped develop the campaign’s messages and outputs. The resulting intervention brought together a range of stakeholders to combine educational efforts, better law enforcement and appealing alternative activities for youngsters.
The key campaign messages for youngsters were:
- Its your environment to use and enjoy, and fires damage it
- Fires aren’t ‘risk free’ fun, because they endangered local homes, impact wildlife and put fire-fighters at risk
- Fire-setting is arson, and the police will prosecute fire-starters
- More exciting activities are available than starting fires
Youngsters from the college devised the campaign’s cartoon mascot (Bernie the Sheep) and strapline ‘Grass is Green, Fire is Mean’. These were used to build a Bernie brand and develop a range of communications outputs including:
- Promotional merchandise (Keyrings and fridge magnets,) was given out via a Bernie stand in the local Asda carpark for 21 days at where people could get to know their local firefighters better
- Car stickers
The youngsters worked with SWFRS and other stakeholders to plan a programme of Easter activities including bush-craft skills, DJ skills, abseiling, film-making, ‘Fire-fighter for a Day’, and graffiti workshops. These activities integrated the key messages about valuing the local environment and preventing fires.
A Bernie website (www.bernie.uk.com) and associated Facebook page kept Bernie’s 1200 friends and local youngsters informed and involved. Activity participation was rewarded with a highly desirable, limited edition Bernie Hoodie and involved youngsters receiving a ‘pledge’ certificate.
Impact and Evaluation
The evaluation used a second community with a similar level of fire setting, (Aberdare), as a ‘control’ sample to eliminate the effect of external influences, particularly the weather. Statistical analysis by the academic partners of recorded fire data for the two towns showed a reduction in the expected numbers of fires (based on previous years and in comparison to the control) during the intervention of 46% - three times the original target.
Other aspects of the project’s evaluations included:
- Pre and post intervention questionnaires (1517 in total) were completed by pupils in Tonypandy and Aberdare. In Tonypandy, 1 in 6 youngsters had taken part in a Bernie activity, 66% felt there had been “more to do this Easter”, and there was increased awareness about grassfires, their impacts, and the need to tackle them
- Follow-up interviews with stakeholders showed improvements in working practices within SWFRS where the project was seen as ‘fun’ to be part of
- Data from the police and SWFRS showed that reported incidence of all forms of anti-social behaviours had reduced in Tondypandy during the Bernie intervention, and that fire incidents continued to be reduced even after it finished
Analysis of the interview data also showed improved community cohesion and a significant shift in social norms about fires.
The project cost was £166,614 and the direct saving from reduced fires in Tonypandy was £285,655. This high cost-benefit ratio does not even take into account the social and environmental benefits of reduced fires, the savings from the continued reduction in fires after the campaign, or the spillover benefits of reduced levels of other anti-social behaviours.
Conclusions and Sustainability
The success of Bernie means that the campaign was continued and extended into a further three Unitary Authorities in South Wales during 2011/12 with an expanded range of stakeholder partners. The social marketing skills that were the basis of the original project have now been passed to SWFRS, allowing them to independently sustain and extend the Bernie brand and interventions using it in future.