On June 24th, a mere eleven days ago on this blog site, I posted an article about people traveling abroad and dying in fires because of a lack of smoke detectors.  Yesterday morning, four people, two adults and two children died in a house fire in the City of Lancaster, Pa.; this added to the adult and child that died in a house fire just five months ago in Lancaster, is six unnecessary fire fatalities.  All of these senseless deaths could have been prevented by a simple fifteen dollar smoke detector.

The real tragedy, many fire departments, including the City of Lancaster, give away and installs smoke detectors for free.  Numerous home improvement stores and local television stations have been donating smoke detectors for years.  As a firefighter working in Lancaster for almost thirty years, I can tell you that we installed thousands of these free smoke detectors.  In a recent conversation with a friend and fire marshal in the City, we addressed the fact that the firefighters have probably installed enough free smoke detectors in the City to have covered every single residence.  Not only are they given away and installed for free, it is the code in the City and most municipalities to have working smoke detectors.  So, why are there people dying in house fires due to a lack of a working smoke detector?

There are a couple of very sad facts that address this issue, but it all starts with education.  Most people are afraid of crime, “no one will die in a fire.”  This is a sad truth of poor educational practices that I have heard hundreds of times in the past three decades.   Most people you talk to tell you that they don’t have a concern about dying in a fire for various reasons.  Comments like, “I am very safe,” “I am a light sleeper,” or “I will put it up tomorrow,” are all comments that allow for complacency and ultimately fire fatalities.

Science shows us that most people die due to the smoke long before the flames reach them.  As the fire burns, the smoke puts off deadly gases, including carbon monoxide.  These deadly gases reduce the person’s ability to function and slowly take their life away as it put them into an eternal sleep.  The quick reacting smoke detector is designed to create an early alert when smoke is present.  This is where many people lack the understanding and education, which leads to either failing to install a detector, misplacing a detector or removing a detector.  To go backwards in a time about a decade, the biggest issue was that smoke detectors were operated with nine volt batteries.  The kids needed a nine volt for one of their toys and a quick place to retrieve one was out of the smoke detector.  This problem was solved with new technology and ten year permanent lithium battery detectors.

The next educational problem is that the average person thinks there is something wrong with the detector because “every time I cook or every time I take a shower the detector goes off.”  This is not a malfunctioning detector; this is a detector working properly.  The detector is meant to “alert” whenever it detects something that blocks its “field” and sensors.  The smoke from cooking and steam from a shower are the same as the smoke from a fire, the detector can’t tell the difference.  One of several things is happening here to cause this reaction and it starts with education.  The smoke detector should not be placed in kitchens, bathrooms or immediately outside bathrooms.  Proper placement of a detector is very important so that it does not “alert” every time we cook or take a shower.  The detector is a piece of technology; it cannot differentiate between accidental smoke/steam and bad smoke/steam.  Every smoke detector box explains proper placement.  In addition, there is not a fire department in the world that will not assist the public with proper placement of smoke detectors to prevent false alerts, while properly protecting the citizen.

Complacency to install and procrastination are other very real problems.  In over thirty years of being in the fire service, I can’t tell you how many fires I have been to in which we discovered the smoke detector in the box on the shelf or in the closet. The person wisely purchased a detector, and then never took the time to install it.  Too often when we ask the fire victim about smoke detectors they would tell us where they are, in the box, and “I was going to install it, but didn’t get to it yet.”  These were the lucky fire victims, because the fire occurred when they were not sleeping.

There is one more very important point that needs to be addressed, firefighter safety.  In February several very good friends of mine were injured in a fatal fire, the one I mentioned earlier.  Did they have to get injured in this fire?  Lt Andre Kelly, a very good friend of mine suffered third degree burns over forty percent of his body while attempting to rescue trapped victims of the fire.  This is what firefighters do; risk their lives to save the lives of the public.  I realize that there was a “report” and the report addressed some concerns with this fire, but any firefighter worth his/her position, would have done the exact same thing, entered a burning building to try to rescue trapped civilians.  We can talk all day about the practices and procedures and what should have or shouldn’t have happened.  We can look at training and procedures and cast blame, as some have done.  There are even those who say they should not have entered the building, but what about the most important point….missing smoke detectors!

As I mentioned earlier, smoke detectors are “EARLY” warning devices.  If the home had working smoke detectors, properly placed throughout the home, there would have been an early alert to the fire.  This does two things: first, the fire is detected when it is smaller, so firefighters can be alerted earlier and therefore only need to deal with a small fire (both of these fatal fires were well involved when firefighters arrived); second, if the homes had working smoke detectors, the residents would have been outside when firefighters arrived.  Therefore, no life safety would have been at risk, the fire would have been smaller and the properly trained firefighters of the City of Lancaster would have quickly handled a small fire with no loss of life, no injuries and minor property damage.

Bringing this full circle, the smoke detectors are free, the firefighters will properly install them in the right locations, and with properly working smoke detectors civilians don’t die and firefighters are faced with smaller fires. My suggestion is simple, every municipality has a list of all of their respective residential properties, and computer programs track these properties, so why then can’t there be a list of every property in which a smoke detector was installed?  All of this though has to be followed by good public education.  People will do the right thing; they just have to know what the right thing is!  We don’t need any more civilian deaths in house fires, nor any more firefighter injuries and deaths; it is really as simple as proper fire prevention education

Questions?  Please feel free to contact me: Duane.Hagelgans@Milersville.edu

Be Safe

Be Smart

Be Prepared!