Three-year-old Geoffrey Jordan didn't seem very interested in the safety tips of the Manhattan Beach police officer. Instead of listening to the old "don't-talk-to-strangers" bit, he hid.
He shied away from holding the officer's night stick, and he wasn't too enthusiastic about listening to the other safety lectures. But Geoffrey was the first to volunteer to climb behind the steering wheel of the fire engine. He even remembered to buckle his seat belt before pretending to drive the paramedic unit.
Geoffrey was one of about 200 children expected to visit the "Safety City" this week in the Manhattan Village Mall.
Crime prevention Officer Andy Harrod said the program gives "just basic safety tips for them to be out on the streets and in the world." He quizzes the children on safety and tells them how to avoid hazards while walking them through a four-foot tall "city" painted on plywood and including railroad tracks, a park, a school and a stranger.
"It's good to have somebody else tell him right and wrong and reinforce it, instead of just having mommy and daddy tell him," said Geoffrey's mother, Maria, of Manhattan Beach.
But the program is intended to do more than reinforce safety lessons. It also is meant to get children acquainted with police and fire officials so they will not be afraid of them.
Harrod shows the children his bullets, knife and other police equipment and promises them that little children will never be jailed or handcuffed, even if they make a mistake. Firefighters show their uniforms, oxygen tanks, hoses and other firefighting equipment to the children.
Jordan said her son learned some safety lessons, even though he often strayed from the group. Last year when she took him to an open house at the fire station, she did not realize he had absorbed what was said until he repeated some of the lessons the next day.
"Even if they only retain 10% or 20% of what they hear, that might be the fact that makes the difference," said Lance Boepple, firefighter and paramedic.
"We are probably their best friend other than their parents or their relatives," he said. Paramedics often treat children involved in car, bicycle and skateboard accidents, but injured children sometimes are overwhelmed by the uniforms, lights, sirens, trucks and all the activity, he said.
And if a child is afraid of the paramedics, he may keep quiet and not tell them what is wrong, added Larry Randall, a firefighter and paramedic.
"When I grew up, I was frightened to death of anyone in a uniform," said fire engineer and paramedic Barry Pape, "and it's important that kids (are not) afraid of us."
Seeing police officers and firefighters in a non-threatening situation helps reduce children's anxieties, Pape said, and the safety officials have a chance to "slip in stuff about matches and all that."
Michelle Murphy of Manhattan Beach agreed that the best part of the program was making her children, 5-year-old Mary Perkins and 3-year-old Dan Perkins, familiar with the safety officials. "I think they'll feel more comfortable if they ever have to deal with them again," she said.
Dan, who held his mother's hand through most of the program, said he was going to play firefighter when he got home. Like most of the children, he proudly wore a red firefighter's hat and police badge sticker given to him by the safety officials.
The parents often learn as much as the children, Randall said. Parents remember safety tips they forgot to tell their children and get the opportunity to ask questions, he said. "They don't make it a point to walk by the station and ask us," he added.
Murphy agreed. "I learned a lot about the police car and all the equipment they have inside," he said.
"Some of the parents are as bad as the kids," Harrod said. "They just love jumping up there and getting behind the wheel" of the fire engine.
Most of the children said the best part of the Safety City program was sitting in the fire and police vehicles, flashing the lights and playing with the buttons. But one baby, resting in his stroller about three feet from the police car, did not enjoy the sirens and wailed his objections as the older children set them off.
Safety City, sponsored by the Manhattan Beach Fire and Police departments, Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Manhattan Village Shopping Center, continues today and Friday from 2 to 4 p.m. at the north end of the mall near Bullock's.
The Fire Department is having an open house for adults and children from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Among the demonstrations will be techniques for extinguishing car fires and caring for accident victims.