HOW can Japan, with its high-density population and paper-and-wood construction, have so few fires (fewer per year than New York City)? Public education is the key, experts agree. The United States can learn from Japan and other countries with excellent fire-prevention records, such as Australia and Switzerland. But certain factors may contribute to making public safety education a daunting task in the US. Fire-safety researchers Philip Schaenman and Edward Seits identify part of the problem in their report, ``International Concepts in Fire Protection.''
``To be fair to ourselves,'' they explain, ``we have a more diverse people within one nation and greater freedom to live as we wish than do most other nations, which makes the fire protection job more difficult.''
But the American fire-safety community keeps at it. ``We have equally good programs,'' says Mr. Schaenman in a telephone interview, ``but we do them in a very spotty manner.''
One success story exists in Norwood, Mass., a Boston suburb. A decade ago, the town's fire department was doing the minimum in educational outreach. ``During Fire Prevention Week we went out and showed the kids the fire trucks,'' says Chief Tom Barry. ``That wasn't doing it.''
Since the department was experiencing problems associated with juveniles - grass and woodland fires and false alarms - it decided to develop lessons for elementary students. In kindergarten, pupils make a get-acquainted visit to a local firehouse. During the next six grades, a fire-department officer presents them with increasingly more sophisticated classroom lessons.
The results have been spectacular. In eight years, the number of grass fires each year has dropped from 750 to less than 100; false alarms have gone from 350 to about 70, and not one child has been injured by fire.
``The program [which costs about $10,000] returns about 100-fold in what we don't have happen,'' Chief Barry says.
An effective fire-education program has the potential for putting firefighters out of work. In Norwood, the number has stayed the same, but Barry says about 45 percent of his department's 3,500 annual responses are to medical emergencies, which is not an unusual breakdown for many fire departments. In fact, some now call themselves ``fire and rescue services.''