By Mitch Talley Whitfield County director of communications
KeeKee the clown is talking about his “yodeling pickle” to the boys and girls at Valley Point Elementary School one recent morning when he suddenly drops a hoe he’s been holding in his hand.
“Hoe down! Hoe down!” he hollers, pointing to the floor.
That sets in motion a wild “hoedown” dance by KeeKee and four of his clown friends and Sparky the dog as the theme song from “The Beverly Hillbillies” blares in the background.
It’s just another crazy day at the office for these Whitfield County firefighters dressed in colorful outfits and makeup as they take their popular Clown Posse show on the road once again.
In fact, an estimated 4,500 students had heard the clowns’ message about fire safety by the time the Clown Posse finished its travels over a seven-day period in late October and early November to 14 county schools where kids from pre-k (if the school has such a program) to second grade were entertained with the fun and informative program.
“This is our 11th year,” Lt. Chris West said in the midst of preparation for the Valley Point show. “We feel like it’s been very successful. The schools love it; they’re ready for it every year. When I call to set up the shows, they say, ‘Come on, the kids have been asking, the teachers have been asking.’”
West and fellow firefighter Lt. Shawn “KeeKee” Damon started the program in 2001 when they decided their important fire safety message needed some more excitement added to it.
“For years, we had a fire safety program, but we pretty much went out to the schools as individual firefighters at each station and did a fire safety talk,” West said. “It was effective, but I don’t know that it kept their attention as much as the clowns do. The kids are drawn to that entertainment.”
That’s obvious as the Valley Point gym erupts into laughter when Sparky the Dog (actually firefighter Engineer Jason Phillips in a canine costume) runs out, making funny gestures behind West’s head to open the program.
From there, it’s a quick hour of fast-paced fun as Pluggy the Fire Hydrant, several puppets behind a wooden fire truck stage built by the firefighters themselves, videos of real firefighters in action and loud, catchy music combine to deliver a message that sticks with the kids for years.
“Eleven years ago, myself and Shawn Damon (KeeKee) said let’s try something new for fire safety,” West recalled. “We were both working at Station 2 at the time. He had watched a video online of some clowns teaching fire safety, so we sat down one night and rehearsed a little program. We borrowed a smoke machine and made a few little props, a little Styrofoam phone to show how to call 911. We recruited a couple of people to help with the sound, and we went to Cohutta Elementary and did the show. We said, ‘Hey, this worked pretty good. Let’s go try it at another school.’ So we went and tried it at Varnell.”
Other schools heard about the program and invited them. “That first year, I think we did five or six schools,” West recalled. “Then the second year, we did 10 schools, and from there it just took off.”
This year’s program, in fact, features five clowns, not to mention a dozen or so other firefighters who work behind the scenes, running the controls for Pluggy the Fire Hydrant, taking care of the sound and working the puppets, for example. Even the puppet stage has become more elaborate through the years, evolving from a simple PVC stage and curtain to an impressive wooden cutout of a fire truck with two puppet stages that the firefighters built themselves.
West took a moment to thank the many local businesses who annually make donations to fund the program. “Thanks to their generosity, we were able to purchase enough fire safety material to give to all pre-k through third grade in Whitfield County,” he said.
Each year, the humorous part of the program changes, but the underlying message of safety always remains the same, West says.
“The show changes from year to year as far as our funny stuff,” he says, “but the basic principles of not playing with matches, stop, drop and roll, and EDITH drills, which stands for Exit Drills in the Home, stay the same. We teach the kids how to get out of a house safely if there is a fire, teach them to crawl low in smoke, not to hide from firefighters, what to do when their smoke detector goes off, not to go back in the house once they get out, and for everybody to go to the same location once they’re out.”
The program ends with West urging the students to go home and tell their parents what they’ve learned and to practice their drills.
After more than a decade of performances, the message from the clowns appears to be working.
“I don’t know the actual numbers,” West says, “but over the years our call volume that deals with children starting fires has dropped drastically. We hope our program has been the cause of it.”