HARVARD — Growing up, Firefighter Oona Aldrich said she wanted to build things as a crane technician. But it turns out her calling is building an awareness of fire hazards.
“Firefighter Oona” — as she’s known in the schools — has been the face of the department’s Student Awareness of Fire Education (SAFE) program for the past 10 years.
SAFE’s goal is to educate children on preventing fires and how to behave if there is one. Most of the curriculum is developed by Aldrich, who uses lectures, props and music to reach every child in each group.
“When I came onboard, little kids would see a smoke alarm and just cry,” she said. “Now they all open it, change the battery and test it. We found a way to not make it scary.”
For those efforts and more, Aldrich has been named Harvard’s 2007 recipient of the Nashoba Publishing Extraordinary Service Award, which she will receive June 21 at the Bull Run Restaurant in Shirley.
The nomination came from fire Chief Robert Mignard, who credited Aldrich for spearheading a valuable service on primarily a volunteer basis. Aldrich’s boundless energy and knack with youngsters is a huge asset the program, he said.
“She’s a natural when you see her working with children,” he said. “She can take 15 fidgeting and giggling preschoolers and keep them focused on what she’s doing. That’s a talent not all of us have.”
While children have been the focus on Aldrich’s work to date, she’s working to widen her audience. She’s halfway though attaining certification in fire safety education, which will allow her to teach techniques to other firefighters in a formal setting.
It’s all about getting the message out to a wider audience, she said.
“As much as I love children, I feel I can reach more people by reaching educators,” she said. “My priority is the Harvard children, adults and teachers, but I’d like to reach everyone in the state and across the nation.”
Aldrich has what it takes, said Mignard.
“She’s all the things you’d want in an employee,” he said. “She’s dedicated, motivated, she’s smart, and she’s honest. From my perspective, SAFE is what she’s passionate about — that and firefighting.”
Aldrich’s passion for fire safety stems from a couple of house fires she survived as a young adult in Brighton. While she made it out, she said mistakes were made. Her goal is to help others avoid the pitfalls.
She’s lived dangerously in more ways than one. She used to race motorcycle sidecars, which requires the passenger to throw his or her weight around to assist with turns. In that role, Aldrich was typically inches above pavement and going over 100 miles per hour.
The position requires quick reflexes and decision-making, which she discovered an affinity for.
“The motorcycle racing led me to becoming a firefighter,” she said. “I learned how to function very well in pressure situations.”
Besides firefighting, Aldrich is a self-described jack of all trades, who is alternately a substitute teacher, Shiatsu therapist and horse whisperer. She’s also working on a series of children’s safety books, though that has often taken a back seat to her main passion, the SAFE program.
While it’s a full plate, Aldrich has no complaints.
“I’m doing what I love, and I feel so lucky,” she said.
Mignard and Aldrich conscientiously noted that SAFE is not a one-person show. They said it draws support from a number of firefighters.
But Aldrich is the driving force, said Mignard, offering a theory as to why.
“People find things that interest and engage them, and for Oona, that’s the SAFE program,” he said.