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Smoke, CO alarms: Matters of life and death

Teach the community how to use these life-saving devices and to have an escape plan

Just last month in Alabama, a woman woke to a beeping sound. Thinking it was her alarm clock, she reached over and hit the clock’s off button, but the beeping didn’t stop.

Once she realized it was the smoke alarm sounding, she grabbed her 7-year-old son and headed outside. A fire broke out in a bedroom just one door from where she was sleeping.

Months prior, her son attended at a fire-safety lesson put on by the local fire department, and part of his homework was to make sure the smoke alarms in the home worked. They didn’t, but new batteries took care of that.

Had the smoke alarms not been working, the result of this fire could have been much worse.

A fire in New York broke out in the den of a large ranch style house. A retired teacher was woken from her nap by the smoke alarm sound. She saw the smoke, woke up a visiting friend and they both made it out of the home safely.

The cause of the fire was a candle lit the night before, but never put out. The candle heated the couch when it dripped, and the fire took off from there.

Recently in Illinois, a smoke alarm sounded, allowing a sleeping family of four to escape from their burning home in the early morning hours. While the cause of that fire is still under investigation, the fire captain on the scene was quick to credit their safety with working smoke alarms in the home.

Similarly, a Rhode Island home caught fire from heat spreading from the chimney in a renovated living area. This fire also broke out early in the morning when occupants were sleeping, and the smoke alarm woke them up so they could leave the home safely.
The above scenarios are all real. You may have responded to calls just like those.

Stories that matter
It is important to use real stories about how people misuse common items in their home that result in fires with deadly consequences. It also is important to use stories, like those above, where safety devices worked the way they were designed to work, and deadly consequences were averted.

Do whatever it takes make those in your community take fire safety seriously. Use the stories above to start a discussion with your local homeowners associations, business groups or seniors.

When you research fires and fire statistics, you see that fire deaths in this country have decreased during the past 40 years from an average of 12,000 per year to about 3,000 per year. Much of this decrease is due to the widespread use of residential smoke alarms.

They have become less expensive and more sophisticated. Long-life batteries and integrated CO detectors make them almost a “turn it on and forget about it” device. Of course, they respond to smoke from fire, which is the most important function for those fast asleep.

After warming up your community group with stories of tragedy or narrow escape, it is a great time to talk about smoke alarms. While some say that we talk about that all the time, we still need to teach and reinforce those messages to our community.

Proper use
Smoke alarms should be placed on the ceilings, away from the corners and walls of a room where air does not circulate for periods of time. If residents cannot install them on a ceiling, high on a wall is the next best option, but stay away from the highest part of the wall to avoid that dead air.

Most smoke alarms have batteries that need to be replaced at least every year; for most of the country — change your clocks, change your batteries.

Instruct residents to test them once a month and have the adults include the entire family in this exercise. Family members who are familiar with the sound of a smoke alarm will be less disoriented if awakens them.

Encourage families to practice a home escape plan that includes meeting at a predetermined place a safe distance from the home.

The level of preparation is often the difference between good luck and bad luck. When it comes to fire prevention, your community members can bet their lives on that.

Tom Kiurski has been in the fire service since 1981. He is the Training Coordinator and Director of Fire Safety Education for Livonia, Mich., Fire & Rescue. He has served as a firefighter/paramedic, engineer and lieutenant prior to his appointment as the training coordinator. He has earned an Associates Degree in Fire Science from Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, Mich., a Bachelors Degree in Fire and Safety Engineering Technology from the University of Cincinnati and a Masters Degree in Public Administration from Eastern Michigan University. Tom teaches fire service-related courses at local colleges and fire academies. He has presented at the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) in Indianapolis seven times, as well as numerous state and local conferences. He has written more than 300 articles on fire safety education and training that have appeared in various fire service publications. Contact Tom at

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