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Who’s watching the kids?

We MUST check the status of smoke alarms at vacation properties, sleepovers, hotels … anywhere and everywhere our kids stay


Stuffed animals adorn the front porch of Chicago Firefighter Walter Stewart’s home, where a fire claimed the lives of his wife and three children.

Photo/Antonio Perez/Tribune News Service

I, like everyone else, was (and remain) stunned after learning that a dwelling fire in Chicago claimed the lives of all four family members of Chicago Firefighter Walter Stewart. He lost his wife and all three kids. He was on duty at another firehouse, heard the run, and was driven to the scene by a caring battalion chief.

Upon arrival, he ended up working on his own wife.

In Firefighter Stewart’s case, the kids were home and certainly presumed safe with Mom – until that devastating fire.

The general public might not understand how there could be a fire in a firefighter’s home, but while we understand fire dynamics and how devastating fire outcomes can be, we are certainly not immune from tragedy.

More often, though, we hear the stories of non-firefighter families, like the family who lost their two daughters in a fire in a vacation rental property in the Noyak area of Long Island, New York.

In our world as firefighters, it’s unbelievable, but yet, smoke alarms are still missing, not working, missing batteries or whatever. Fire personnel said that while the home had smoke alarms, the ongoing investigation has not yet determined if they were working as designed … in a house that did not have a valid rental permit.

So that’s what this column is about – our responsibility for the kids. Our kids, your kids, their kids. It’s about THAT conversation and having dual-purpose smoke and carbon monoxide (CO) alarms.


Because fires only happen to other folks. That’s the public perception. Hell, it’s ours too at times. So without firefighters being the untiring salespeople “selling” the message, we will continue to lose.

When firefighters have to crawl down the halls to find babies, we are the last resort, and while sometimes we are successful, most times, tragically, we are not – and not for not giving it our all. It’s often just too late. And it’s often because other successful methods didn’t work. After all, smoke alarms won’t work if they’re not there or the batteries are gone.

The firefighters’ push – Part 1

These two beautiful girls died in a New York rental house where there was no valid rental permit on file for the property, meaning there was no safety inspection and there was no rental inspection. None of those things occurred because there was never an application submitted for this to be a rental. This is not an area where affording a well-maintained smoke alarm system or even fire sprinklers would have been an issue.

The family was vacationing from Potomac, Maryland. Lewis Wiener, 60, Alisa Wiener, 52, and their son, Zachary, 23, all escaped the fire and smoke after Lewis was awakened by “the sound of glass breaking.” Zachary leapt to safety from a second-floor window. But not his sisters.

Lewis tried to re-enter the burning home to reach his girls, suffering burns from the heavy fire conditions that turned him back.

Sag Harbor firefighters arrived and made a push to get to where the girls were trapped, using a ladder to get to the second floor. They found the girls and got them out. But Jillian Wiener and Lindsay Wiener were unconscious and unresponsive, and were later pronounced dead.

The Sag Harbor firefighters gave it their all. But as we know, this kind of incident for firefighters is often like trying to win an arm wrestle but starting with your arm pinned down by someone twice your size. Not good odds. But firefighters, like those in Sag Harbor, push anyway, no matter what, against any odds.

The firefighters’ push – Part 2

It’s 2023 and while there is enough sh!t to worry about these days, the one thing people should NOT have to worry about is if fire breaking glass will wake them instead of a screeching smoke alarm – a device that has proven itself over and over for decades. (Remember, smoke alarms have been around since 1965.)

So until someone successfully develops a smoke-sniffing smartphone app that is automatically installed on everyone’s phone, we have to keep pushing and pushing hard for smoke alarms everywhere and anywhere AND spreading the message as good as we spread gossip.

Walk in. Look up. Point. LOOK for the smoke alarms. Make sure they are working. Sure, they will ask, “What are you doing?” and you can tell them what you are doing – and why. Forget feeling like a “goof” or a “dork” or being “ate up with fire stuff.” You are all of the above! So just do it.

  • Your home? YES
  • Hotels? YES
  • Sleepovers? YES, SLEEPOVERS

Thinks about it. Sleepovers are a big deal. We entrust our kids or grandkids to stay at someone else’s home. We assume they will take care of our kids as they would our own, but how well are they taking care of their own? Who is watching YOUR kids during that sleepover? Are they protected the way you want them to be?

Sure, you can be shy and not want to ask and take the gamble. A purely stupid gamble. Gamble on your kids or grandkids? NOPE.

When dropping the kids off, ASK about the smoke alarms. Odds are, they have working smoke alarms, but then again, maybe they don’t. Maybe the batteries are missing? Checking for working smoke alarms is even better than a hug. And it shows the host that you have concerns for your kids – and their as well.

The NFPA has great resources for making a home fire escape plan. Check out the video and download the free escape planning tools.

Spread the word

URGE your friends, family, your public, anyone and everyone, who will listen to ensure that wherever they stay, home or away, sleepovers, friends’ homes, vacation home, you name it, that there are working smoke alarms. Pack them in your suitcase, clip them to handles, put them in kid’s backpacks – whatever you have to do. Stay NOWHERE without working smoke alarms.

Check them, test them, bring your own. You can even get mini smoke detectors that have a diameter of only 78 mm – tiny little lifesavers.

Our condolences to the Stewart and Weiner families. Our hearts are broken as well.

[Stewart family fundraiser via Ignite the Spirit Chicago]

Chief Billy Goldfeder, EFO, a firefighter since 1973, serves as deputy fire chief of the Loveland-Symmes (Ohio) Fire Department. He also serves as Lexipol’s senior fire advisor and is a member of the Fire Chief/FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board. Goldfeder is a member of the Board of Directors for several organizations: the IAFC, the September 11th Families Association and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF). He also provides expert review assistance to the CDC NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program. Goldfeder is the recipient of numerous operational and administrative awards, appointments and recognitions. He has served on several NFPA and IAFC committees, has authored numerous articles and books, and presented several sessions at industry events. Chief Goldfeder co-hosts the website
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