The energetic sounds of an accordion echo off the walls of the gym at Antioch Elementary School one recent afternoon.
The Whitfield County Fire Department Clown Posse is back in town and ready to have some fun.
“We’ve been working really hard on all of our dance moves,” Kee-Kee the Clown says to emcee Jason Phillips. “We can make a chicken dance.”
“Y’all want to see a chicken dance?” Kee-Kee asks, looking out at the large group of students, who quickly respond with a loud “Yeahhhhhh!”
Just then, sure enough, Skeeter the Clown comes riding out on the shoulders of a dancing chicken and bounces around the gym floor.
“That’s not a chicken dance,” the skeptical emcee retorts.
“That’s a clown wearing a chicken suit.”
“So you’re not impressed?” Kee-Kee asks.
“No, I’m not impressed,” Mr. Phillips responds.
“Plan B,” Kee-Kee responds. “Let me do one amazing magic trick….”
With that, the 2017 edition of the Clown Posse is off and running as they deliver another entertaining show and spread their fire safety message for the 17th consecutive year.
“We’ve had some good success with the program,” Lt. Chris West said before the performance, as the clowns made final preparations for another of their shows delivered over a seven-day period in front of some 4,200 students at 13 elementary schools in the county. “Fire calls over the years of kids playing with matches and lighters are drastically lower, so we hope this has contributed to it.”
In fact, an Antioch Elementary student actually helped save her family last year when she remembered the clowns’ message and called 911 after their kitchen caught fire.
“So we’ve seen success and we definitely want to keep putting our messages out there,” West said, repeating the goal of the show to emphasize the main themes of stop, drop and roll, don’t play with matches and lighters, and get out of the house safely with the EDITH drill (Exit Drill in the Home).
During this year’s show, though, the clowns didn’t pay attention to those three important fire safety messages, at least at first. They got in trouble for making bad grades, couldn’t have a snack per their parents’ decision, went ahead and made a ham, turkey and cheese sandwich, and promptly caught the kitchen “on fire” when they tried to bake it in the oven.
Students pointed excitedly at the smoke, trying to warn the clowns about the fire. The frightened clowns first went a little crazy running around the stage, but then remembered to get down low and crawl out of the burning house, then all gather at their pre-determined meeting place, their mailbox. Firefighters dressed in real garb then responded to the blaze, showing the kids what firefighters would look and sound like in case of a real fire. Students also watched as the clowns got in trouble with emcee Phillips for their antics.
A lot of important messages crammed into a funny, five-minute skit.
“We want the kids to know how important it is to know two ways to get out of their house in case of a fire,” West said. “We try to make sure that families know that if their kids live on the second story and there’s no way for them to get out on the roof so they can jump off, to make sure they’ve got an escape ladder for the kids to get down from the second story.”
They also talked how no one should go back into a burning house once they’ve escaped, no matter how tempting it might be to try and save another family member, a pet, or a favorite toy.
A catchy song also helped the students remember the importance of “Stop, Drop and Roll” in case they catch on fire, to help smother the blaze.
This year’s shows were the first without Battalion Chief John Chester, who passed away unexpectedly earlier this year.
“John had helped us in the fire safety education program for five or six years,” West said, noting that
Chester had served as emcee of the shows many times. “We really miss him.”
In honor of Chester, West told the students about him at the end of the show, leading into a short slide show of photos.
This year marks the 17th edition for the Clown Posse, which started from humble beginnings in 2001 when Kee-Kee (also known as Lt. Shawn Damon) and Lt. Chris West did a two-man show at Cohutta Elementary.
“It was just me and him, straight man and clown,” West recalled. “We had just a few little props, and we went in and taught fire safety. It caught on in the county. That first year, I think we only did four or five schools. The second year, in 2002, we did all 10 county schools, and now it’s just grown to what it is today.”
The popularity of the show has grown not only with the schools but also with the firefighters.
Nearly 20 firefighters (and one firefighter’s daughter) take part in the shows. When firefighter Samantha Splawn, who is employed full-time in the county’s Probate Office, couldn’t play her role as Edith for every show, Wesley Williams’ daughter Natalie stepped in and did a great job, West said.
“When we first started the Clown Posse,” he said, “we had to sell the idea to the schools. Now the minute I walk in the door, they say, ‘Oh it’s time again! We’re ready.’ That tells me it works for the school system because they believe in it enough to take time out of their curriculum lineup to do it. Schools have a lot to teach now, and they can’t deviate much. But they believe in the fire safety message delivered by the clowns, and the kids will talk about it for days.”
2017 FIRE SAFETY EDUCATION PERSONNEL
Shawn Damon (Kee-Kee the Clown)
Chris West (coordinator)
Wesley Williams (Hose-A the Clown)
Jason Phillips (emcee)
Charles Blair (Expert the Clown)
Harold West (helper)
Darren Burnette (Pluggie the Fire Plug operator)
Jake Warnix (Sparky)
Lee Coker (sound)
Branden Pewitt (Skeeter the Clown)
Samantha Splawn (Edith the Clown)
Natalie Williams (Edith the Clown)
Brady Walters (helper)
Christian Chadwick (sound)
Jesse Bond (emcee)
Kyle Lawless (Crawl Space the Clown)
Jamie Franks (helper)
Derek Craft (helper)
Cody Ruddell (helper)