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W.Va. firefighter ‘Captain Cindy’ Murphy battling impact of COVID in the community and classroom

Fire prevention, public safety education initiatives continuing during pandemic

By Lexi Browning, West Virginia Press Association

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — In her 30-year career as a firefighter, Clarksburg Fire Department Captain Cindy Murphy has never encountered a public health challenge as far-reaching as the Coronavirus pandemic.

Coronavirus’ attack on the public’s health — with 34,460 cases and 585 deaths in West Virginia as of Monday — is more obvious than it’s impact on first responders and public health programs. Essential workers have labored since March to serve the public and meet the new safety measures and health protocols outlined by the state’s Department of Health and Human Resources and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

For Murphy, whose duties include leading many of Harrison County’s fire prevention and public safety education initiatives, the pandemic has complicated her job, but she is committed to not letting anything get in the way of keeping the community informed. 

Since 2015, Murphy has been visiting every elementary school in Harrison County for her Operation “Not One More” project, when she shares public safety presentations with first grade students. At the end of the presentation, each student gets a smoke detector, all sponsored by local organizations and businesses, including State Farm.

Clarksburg Fire Department Captain Cindy Murphy

Approximately 700 to 900 students get smoke alarms each year, Murphy said. 

But COVID-19 challenges that process and means of distribution. With traditional in-person public education meetings off the table for schools this year, Murphy’s gotten creative: She’s pre-packaged smoke alarms, delivered them to schools and made a video for first grade teachers to share with their students. 

“They can watch the video, ask questions, and I’ll make myself available to them on Zoom,” Murphy said. “[COVID-19] completely changed how I do this service.”

Halting the smoke detector service wasn’t an option for Murphy, who started the initiative after Harrison County lost three residents in a house fire. Among those killed was a young girl who had attended one of Murphy’s classroom safety sessions.

That day Murphy said she knew the service had to expand and continue.

“In my program, I get them very involved,” Murphy said. “It’s … simple phrases like ‘Change your clock, Change your battery’ that we go over again and again and again. My program is anywhere from 25 to 30 minutes. I know they’re not going to retain every bit of information, but I have four or five little catch phrases that come directly from the [National Fire Protection Association] that we do over and over and over again.”

The repetition is a “critical part” of safety education, she said. 

“I’m hoping that, in that time at 3 a.m. in the morning, if this kid wakes up and his smoke alarm is going off, he hears Captain Cindy in the background saying, ‘stay low and go,’ ‘get out, stay out,’ ‘check the door to see if it’s hot,’” she said. “All of those little phrases that we’ve gone over and over and have gone home and practiced, we’re hoping that it’ll be pure muscle memory at that point as for what they need to do instead of panic.”

Thanks to the NFPA, Murphy found resources and new methods to spread the word, network with others in her position and help transition initiatives into lasting virtual resources. 

For Fire Safety Week, Clarksburg sent out a newsletter with tips for cooking, fire safety and detector battery check reminders. 

“The city of Clarksburg does simple things like fire safety messages on your water bill or the bills that come from the city,” Murphy said. “It’s a small reminder to change your batteries. You do what you can under different circumstances and try to get that message out to the public that’s sitting in their house a lot more than they used to.” 

Social media has also had a major role in spreading information throughout the community during the unprecedented times, she noted.

“Social media is still one of the biggest tools we have, because if you get somebody to like your page, you just throw out a picture of a smoke alarm and say, ‘hey, check your smoke alarms.’ That’s going to show up in their feed.”

With winter on the horizon, Murphy said one of the biggest concerns is carbon monoxide poisoning and making sure residents have carbon monoxide detectors in their homes. She recommended that all West Virginians have their furnaces checked, change filters, clean chimneys and check all detector batteries. 

“The unfortunate thing is that carbon monoxide poisoning often starts to mimic the flu,” Murphy said. “Do they have coronavirus? Do they have the flu? Or do they have a high amount of carbon monoxide in their house. It’s trying to get that education out there so we can eliminate the carbon monoxide poisoning by making sure you have carbon monoxide alarms in your home.”

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