Chapel Hill firefighter lauded for children's safety work

CorrespondentJuly 24, 2013 

— Behind Matt Lawrence’s desk hangs a photograph of his wife, Connie, and his two sons, Macon and Nick.

Lawrence, an operations chief at the Chapel Hill Fire Department, combined his passion for his children with his career as a firefighter when he got involved with Safe Kids North Carolina.

His fire safety career began in 1987, when he joined the Fire Explorer Post at the Burlington Fire Department. He became a volunteer firefighter in 1993 and earned his job as a firefighter four years later.

While Lawrence’s wife was expecting their first son in 2001, Lawrence took the National Child Passenger Technician course with Safe Kids to learn how to use a car seat. After that course, he continued to learn about other child safety issues.

“The fire prevention and fire safety aspect of it was really a no-brainer because that’s what my job is,” he said. “Reaching out to the other areas, like child passenger safety, came from the motivation of having my own kids at home.”

Two years later, Lawrence organized a Safe Kids coalition in Burlington and served as coordinator until 2007. When a job in Chapel Hill as a fire marshal became available that year, Lawrence seized the opportunity to come to Orange County. There, he organized – and later became chairman – of the Orange County Safe Kids coalition.

Alongside his work with Orange County Safe Kids, Lawrence brought a puppet program about fire safety to children in Chapel Hill: “Johnny Joins the Fire Department.” Lawrence came up with the show while working in Burlington, and he later collaborated with First Sgt. Chris Bradley to perform the show around Orange County. In 2010, Johnny received funding from the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center to turn the puppet show into a movie, which has since been shown statewide.

“The use of songs and attention-grabbing puppets seems to be much more effective in retaining the information we share,” Lawrence said. “We often hear the kids, even adults, singing the fire-safety songs as they leave, which reinforces to us that its info they will remember.”

Lawrence recognized that children get hurt more during the summer primarily because they are out of school and have less supervision. So in 2010, he organized the county’s first Summer Safety Fair. The fair brought together many different organizations such as the school system, fire department, and police department.

“We had never really pulled those different groups together in one location to have one big event where families could come and get the whole smorgasbord of information about how to stay safe through the summer,” he said.

The first Summer Safety Fair was held near the Fire Department’s public outreach center in Meadowmont, The Fireplace. Kids carried a passport with them to each of the 10 booths with fliers, demonstrations and activities about summer safety. After learning about a topic, they would get their passports punched. At the end of the event, each kid received free ice cream and prizes.

The next year, the Summer Safety Fair moved to the YMCA near Meadowmont. Kids enjoyed an afternoon of free swim after the event.

“We really tried to make it fun for the kids so that they had some draw and could get them there, interested, and through the program,” Lawrence said. “Hopefully they could pick up a little bit of information and have fun throughout their summers.”

Last month, Safe Kids North Carolina held a conference at the Chapel Hill Sheraton Hotel, where an unsuspecting Lawrence received the Outstanding Leadership Award for his work with the Orange County Safe Kids coalition.

“I was actually very surprised to be called up to received the award,” he said.

Shannon Barkwell, current coordinator for the county’s Safe Kids Coalition, nominated Lawrence for the award.

“He really grew the group and tried to get people involved,” she said.

Today Orange County Safe Kids includes child passenger safety, fire prevention safety, water safety, bike and pedestrian safety, gun safety, and poison prevention, among other topics.

“Matt grew the coalition from on average two to three people at a meeting to anywhere from 10 to 15 individuals,” Barkwell said.

While his first experience with child safety stemmed from having his own son, Lawrence said his passion grows as children share their knowledge with their family. He hopes to teach lifelong safety skills to children early in life.

Dace Bergen, Interim Fire Marshal at Chapel Hill Fire Department, has known Lawrence for about six years.

“He is very dedicated to improving the quality of life of everyone in the community. He is selfless of his time. He strives to improve every aspect of responsibility he is assigned,” Bergen said.

Lawrence is no longer an active member of Safe Kids N.C., but he remains an avid supporter of the organization. His work to establish a Safe Kids coalition in Orange County continues to be appreciated. Bergen serves as treasurer for the Orange County coalition and said he values all the work Lawrence put in since 2007.

“His work helped make the Orange County Safe Kids coalition a very vibrant, active and successful organization promoting the safety of children in the community,” Bergen said.

Grady: laurenbgrady@gmail.com

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