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Smoke detectors can give time needed to escape from fire - 01/19/08

MOUNT VERNON — It’s the middle of the night, and the family is asleep. Somewhere in the basement, an electrical outlet that has seen better days, short circuits, and a nightmare begins. Smoldering for hours, a small pile of laundry grows hotter, and smoke begins to fill the basement. What happens next can mean the difference between life and death. Is there a smoke detector in the basement? What about the first floor? The bedrooms? Do the detectors have fresh batteries? Do they have batteries at all? In a fire, seconds count. According to fire officials, once a house fire has started, it doubles in size every 45 to 60 seconds, while the temperature soars between 1,000 and 1,700 degrees. Life-sustaining oxygen is replaced with blinding, choking smoke and poisonous gases. In two to three minutes, a typical living room or bedroom can become fully engulfed in flames.  But people who die in house fires often aren’t touched by flame. People who die in house fires often do so without ever waking up, succumbing to smoke and poisonous gases before they are touched by flames. According to State Fire Marshal Michael P. Bell, his first winter as fire marshal has been frustrating for him due to the loss of life among Ohio’s citizens; a loss that may have been prevented by smoke detectors. Especially, he said, the senseless deaths of so many children, the numbers of which are staggering.

“We need to address this. We need heavy-duty attention to this,” Bell said. The marshal said the recent deaths should serve as tragic reminders of how important it is to have working smoke detectors in every home. Since Nov. 19, 36 fire-related deaths have been reported in Ohio, according to the Division of State Fire Marshal. Sixteen of these deaths were youths age 18 or under. The deaths occurred in 17 separate fires. There were smoke detectors in only three of the homes where the fires occurred; of those three, only one was actually functioning. The one that was functioning, however, was located in a basement, not near the bedroom where the person died. Last year during the same time period, three children were killed in fires. Mount Vernon Fire Chief Shaun Christy said that at the last four fires to which his department responded, no working smoke detectors were found.

“A larger percentage of people don’t have functioning smoke detectors,” he said. Fire officials recommend placing a smoke detector in each sleeping area, the kitchen, the basement, the laundry room, near the furnace, and at the top of each stairway. “Ideally, you’d like to have one in every room and every hallway,” said Joe Porer, chief of the Central Ohio Joint Fire District. Proper maintenance of smoke detectors is as crucial as installing them in the first place. “People just don’t maintain them,” said Porter. “They’ll disconnect them when they burn the roast and they go off, or they’ll take the batteries out, and they forget to hook it back up afterward. “They need to be vacuumed out regularly, too, whenever you change the battery, because dust can really interfere with their operation,” said Porter. “We’ve seen smoke detectors save lives,” said Fredericktown Chief Scott Mast. “A couple of years ago we had a fire in the middle of the night. Two people got out because of smoke detectors.” “I’ve seen where a smoke detector did alert occupants in the middle of the night. Had the smoke detectors not worked, it would have been much nastier,” Porter said. “In 22 years, I’ve seen them save a lot of lives.”

MVFD Assistant Chief Chris Menapace has also seen the difference detectors can make. “As a paramedic, I have treated people for smoke inhalation when their escape was delayed because their smoke detector wasn’t working properly,” he said, noting the importance of testing smoke detectors each month, and replacing the batteries twice a year. “A good way to remember is to change the batteries when you change your clocks twice a year.” The entire smoke detector, he said, should be replaced every 10 years. Larry Stimpert, Eastern Knox County Joint Fire District chief, said parents need to hold fire drills at home on a regular basis, so that if the smoke detectors do go off, children will know what to do, what route to take to escape and where to meet safely outside. “Otherwise, kids don’t recognize the audible alert, and when that thing goes off in a fire situation, kids don’t know what to do. Especially with children, drills are extremely important,” said Stimpert. Stimpert said homes with young children can benefit from special alarms that have recordable voice alerts. Instead of a loud beep, he said, a parent’s voice ordering kids to get up and get out of the house has been shown to be very effective with small sleeping children. Christy said newer homes equipped with hard-wired smoke detectors that are also interconnected will keep families even safer. These detectors do not rely on batteries for power. Another advantage is that even if a fire has started in a remote part of the house, such as an attic or basement, all of the detectors will sound, warning occupants in every room. Local fire departments keep a supply of smoke detectors, provided by the the Red Cross, on hand for local families. The detectors come with batteries, and firefighters will instruct residents how to install them.  “We’ll even put them up for you,” said Porter.  Porter said the recent rash of fire deaths among children in Ohio should remind parents to pay attention, and take precautions. Smoke detectors, he said, are an easy way to buy time in an emergency situation.  “Smoke detectors are proven to be life savers,” Porter said.

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