'Safety villages' let kids navigate fire, traffic hazards

(Courtesy: Cobb County / YouTube)

ASHVILLE, N.Y. (AP) — With the fire alarm sounding, 8-year-old Chryssa Wahl crouched beneath the smoke spreading from the kitchen stove and crawled into a bedroom and to the window, where she threw a leg over the sill and stepped her way down a wobbling rope ladder to the ground below.

During this school field trip, the danger wasn't real. But the crawling and climbing were.

That kind of hands-on experience is what instructors at the Chautauqua Children's Safety Education Village say make their lessons so effective.

"If they're ever in a fire in their own home then they're going to remember what they did here," Executive Director Terri Kindberg said.

Later, Chryssa's group from Jamestown's Bush Elementary School moved from the model house to an outdoor village, not unlike a movie set, with scaled-down streets and mock storefronts to practice the rules of the road behind the wheel of miniature cars.

The nonprofit in upstate New York is one of dozens of safety villages in the United States and Canada, and more are in the works, the idea being that learning by doing in a safe environment is the best defense against real danger.

Students from preschool age on up practice twisting their arms out of the grip of a stranger and making 911 calls. They demonstrate that "stop, drop and roll" and other lessons are sinking in.

"Some kids are really scared and they don't want to go out the window, they don't want to go down the ladder," Kindberg said, "but we really try to encourage them and work with them to get them to do that one time."

Patrick Carroll is trying to raise $250,000 to buy a closed school building and surrounding property to site a safety village near Albany. The Chautauqua County village is funded by donations, fundraising and a $5 per child fee after getting off the ground with a $1.7 million federal grant.

Sheriff Joseph Gerace led efforts to build the western New York village after being introduced to the concept in 1996. Since opening in 2010, the site also has given law enforcement a place to practice with remote-controlled robots and K-9 units.

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The New York leaders want to see government get involved in building villages in the state and beyond. Georgia's Cobb County Safety Village is a private-public venture that sits on county land, director Allison Carter said. Every second- and fourth-grader practices escaping from a "burning" living room at the site, which sees 24,000 students during the school year and 2,000 during the summer.

"It's like when I turned 16 and my dad taught me how to change a tire," Carter said. "If I hadn't gone through it, when I was 21 and stranded on the side of the road I wouldn't have known how to change a tire."

The western New York village points as a success story to a 4-year-old student who after her visit insisted that her family make an escape plan. A month later, the family used the plan to safely escape a house fire, Kindberg said.

"What the program brings home to the parents," said Chryssa's mother, Danni Wahl, "is that reminder to have these conversations."