Behind EXCEL: NFPA Giving Survivors a Voice

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In this series, we talk with the people who created some of this year’s most exciting EXCEL Award-winning work to find the story behind the project. For more stories behind this year’s EXCEL Awards look for the August-September issue of Signature magazine.

Go here for a full list of this year’s EXCEL winners.


Reporter and narrator Fred Durso, Jr. worked with video content manager Kyle MacNaught on “The Survivors” podcast series for the National Fire Protection Association. The series won the pair a Gold in Digital Media: Podcast (Educational) category, and NFPA ended up winning eight EXCEL awards this year.

NFPA video content manager Kyle MacNaught, left, and
Fred Durso, 
communications manager fire sprinkler initiative.


We spoke with Durso, NFPA’s communications manager fire sprinkler initiative, to find what made “The Survivors” so special.


Sidebar: What’s the story behind this entry?

Durso: We constantly promote our statistics on home fires. Every day, seven people die from these incidents and another 13,000 are injured annually from them. However, these numbers say little about the people involved. We wanted to get to know these people. What is their new normal? How have their lives changed following something so catastrophic? It’s hard to emotionally connect to a statistic. If people are truly going to grasp today’s home fire problem, we believe it needs to be humanized.

We had the idea of taking an extensive look at the life of a burn survivor. We wanted to tell a story that our statistics didn’t tell us. We have created quick videos featuring burn survivor stories, but we felt a podcast series would be the perfect medium for taking a more comprehensive look at their life. A colleague of ours connected us with Feike van Dijk. This Wyoming father of five lost two of his boys — ages 4 and 2 — in a 2014 fire at their home. Feike, his wife, and another one of his boys were all injured in the fire. After some preliminary conversations with Feike, we knew he had a compelling and important story to share.

In our five-part series, we created episodic themes tying the van Dijks’ story to what a burn survivor endures and the home-fire problem at large. For instance, one episode discussed physical recovery of a burn survivor. Another tackled emotional trauma and support. Another underscored why today’s new home environments are placing firefighters and residents at greater risk of injury and death. Finally, we discussed the solution to this problem — the installation of fire sprinklers in all new homes — and the powerful forces spending millions of dollars to keep this technology out of there.

We conducted more than 15 interviews and spend about a week with the van Dijks at their home in Lander, Wyoming, and at the Utah burn center that treated the family. We felt this face time was important to truly understand a home fire survivor’s aftermath.


Sidebar: Did that effort resonate with your members and listeners?

Durso: People have told us time and again how moved they were by this story. While there are heartbreaking and candid moments from the van Dijks, the story also underscores the family’s resilience. They have worked incredibly hard in finding meaning to their tragedy and getting to a better place in life, both physically and emotionally. The ability to have listeners join us on their journey from victim to survivor has to be the most rewarding outcome of this project.

Sidebar: What notable hurdles did you overcome to create this?

Durso: Listening to countless hours of interviews and creating scripts for each episode was a bit challenging. Also, we were producing and recording episodes during a busy travel season at work. Most of the narration was recorded in a hotel room, not a studio! In the end, though, we were all happy with the finished product.


Sidebar: What was your greatest achievement during the process?

Durso: We were honored to be the ones to tell the van Dijks’ story. I’m hoping it was therapeutic for them to share with us what they’ve experienced and to see what we’ve seen — a family that has lost so much, but possess a deeper appreciation for what they have.

Also, their willingness to share their story has helped humanize the life-altering effects of home fires to a larger audience. People outside of the fire- and life-safety world have listened to the podcast and now understand that fire doesn’t discriminate. It can affect anyone. It has helped us spread NFPA’s safety messages while combating the popular myth that “fire isn’t going to happen to me.”


Sidebar: What lessons did you learn from this project?

Durso: Our fire statistics are important, but to grab the public’s attention, you need to shape that data into stories that connect with people. We’ve learned the necessity of storytelling via this podcast. The response to the van Dijk’s story has been tremendous, and it’s through their story that a new crop of people now understand the true impact fire has on our society.


You can listen to “The Survivors” here or on Google Play and the iTunes Store.