Retired McKinney firefighter Brent Rollins certainly puts a new spin on the term “send in the clowns.” In 1993, he founded the McTown Klownz, a group of local, active firefighters who visit elementary schools throughout Collin County to teach kids about life and fire safety, while, at the same time, bringing them much joy and laughter. We sat down with three of the fire-fighting clowns Jason Newell (also known as Siren), Terry Carr (Bucky) and Eric Daniels (Plug) over breakfast to discuss how they are impacting kids’ lives, one show at a time.
How did McTown Klownz start out?
Jason Newell: All of us actually came in under Brent Rollins. We’ve all gone to school—different conferences and classes to teach us how to educate properly. It’s one thing to be able to put makeup on and try to be funny, but the goal of our program is to educate kids, and clowning is a method to deliver our message in a nontraditional way.
When it comes to fire safety, what do you guys teach kids?
Terry Carr: We teach them anything from stop, drop, cover and roll, smoke alarms, changing the batteries, electrical safety, not to overload plugs or have an adult help you with this, tools and toys, matches and lighters, swim safety, bullying, which is a big one right now, cyber safety and bicycle safety. We take everything and try to stay relevant to what’s going on. We even check with the hospitals and find out what they are seeing a lot of—a lot of burns, falls or victims of bullying.
JN: When our program first started, we taught fire safety. We taught 911, stop, drop and roll, get out and stay out—things like that. We realized the scope of our job as firefighters is somewhat broader than just being a fireman. We’re paramedics, we’re anything the public needs. With that, the scope of our program had to change. So now it’s called Life and Fire Safety, it’s not just fire safety. We teach anything that may affect the kids from a day-to-day aspect.
While discussing these topics, how do you keep the tone serious yet entertaining?
Eric Daniels: We take the first couple minutes of the show and do it like you would a short story [and] introduce ourselves—what this is, what you are seeing, who you are, who we are, what are we doing here. Once they are comfortable seeing our face, realizing what we are doing, we move into a discipline and layer those disciplines over the course of 30 minutes. At the end of the show, we recap them all. In between them, we keep some comedy [and] funny lines for the teachers and kids.
TC: A lot of it goes back to our training, too. A lot of kids don’t like for someone to stand up in front of them and say, “Don’t do this or don’t do that.” We’ve been taught to use positive reinforcements, like “We always do this or we always do that.” We’re able to show the message without coming across as being authoritative but rather more entertaining, and hopefully, they pick up and learn that way. We include the kids [and] bring them up on stage. A lot of our giveaways now, we don’t just give away. We have them answer a question from the show, like “What do we do when the smoke alarms go off?” If they give us the answer, we give giveaways—that’s positive reinforcement.
What new initiatives do you have in store?
JN: Our biggest challenge every year is trying to top what we’ve done. We’re never complacent with where we are, we always want to do better—whether it’s our makeup, costumes or set, but ultimately, it all goes into putting on a better performance for the kids.
How can the community help you guys accomplish your mission?
TC: I think the community gets involved when the kids go home and talk about it. Once the kids or the parents see [the show] or the kids talk about it, we’ll then see these parents and they’ll go, “Hey, my son was telling me y’all taught him this, this and this.” That brings us to [say], “That’s right, and did you help them, did you go over the smoke alarms and test them, did you do your plan?” It’s things like that, to continue talking about it after we’ve taught the kids.
JN: One of the best interactions we get is when we do Scare on the Square, which is a Halloween event here in McKinney. We go out in our clown characters and interact with kids, and it’s amazing the reaction we get. All the kids have their parents with them. The kids come up to us because they know us and that opens up the dialogue. It’s a great opportunity to not only to be around the kids but to be around the parents and let them see who we are and what we’re doing. We represent the fire department, we represent the city, but we’re here for the kids.