Fire has claimed the lives of three people – including a teenage girl – in the last few weeks. City officials are hoping to avoid future tragedies by amplifying fire prevention measures.
“Certainly, anytime you have three fatalities in a month’s time, we would call that a high number, and anytime there’s a loss of life, we’re concerned,” Fire Chief Antony Farmer said.
Although the fires occurred in three separate communities, the deaths of James Hatcher of Eastgate Village, Ralph Phillips of Sherwood Station Apartments and 13-year-old Ayanna Smith of Easton have put the city on high alert. The Fire Department had scheduled a press conference about fire safety and prevention on Feb. 7, but the event had to be postponed due to inclement weather.
“One of the things we would always focus on and we probably would see as a common thread in these (fires) is making sure that you have a smoke detector,” Farmer noted. “As old as that sounds, a smoke detector is an early warning device, and probably in all of these instances, there was a question as to whether the smoke detectors were operating and even in place.”
Smoke detectors are a simple, yet highly effective precaution that every family should take seriously, Farmer said, because they alert residents at the first sign of danger, which gives occupants more time to exit the residence safely and notify authorities sooner. The city adopted a smoke detector requirement more than 20 years ago and amended it in recent years to require smoke detectors in “each room designated for sleeping purposes, or used for sleeping more than occasionally, or listed as a bedroom on a set of plans and each story.” At the time that the revised ordinance went into effect in 2010, one in five local fires occurred in a building that was not equipped with a working smoke detector, officials said.
“It saves lives,” Ritchie Brooks, director of the Community and Business Development department, said of the amendment. “When you have smoke detectors inside of the bedrooms, folks are alerted much sooner and have a better opportunity to hear the alarm when it goes off, which gives them more time to exit.”
Brooks, whose team is responsible for inspecting properties that have been damaged by fires and responding to complaints about potential code violations, said simply having a smoke detector isn’t enough.
“In many instances (where fires occur) there are smoke detectors in the units, but for some reason, the batteries may not be in it or the batteries are dead,” he said. “I would strongly encourage everybody to have a smoke detector in the places that are required, and to regularly check to ensure that they are operational.”
The general rule is to check the batteries and test detectors twice a year – when you change the clocks – but Brooks suggests doing so quarterly. The Fire Department recommends that families create exit strategies and identify at least two exit options (through windows or doors) for every area in the house. Farmer says families should practice the strategies with drills so that everyone knows exactly what to do in the event of an emergency.
“You need to go through the motions,” he said. “…It’s good to have gone through those things so that the mind can remember those acts rather than having to go through it impromptu during a traumatic experience.”
The Fire Department also offers a voluntary Home Evaluation Program, where community educators inspect homes, identifying possible fire hazards and making recommendations on how to correct them, Farmer said. The Department also regularly conducts education and awareness campaigns in areas where fires frequently occur, such as the Easton neighborhood, where a fire safety campaign had been underway since the fall, Farmer said.
“Ironically, we had been doing door to door smoke detection campaigns,” the chief said. “…We certainly will continue to deliver that message about fire safety.”
The Fire Department responds to an average of 13-15 fires per month, most of which are started by food that is left unattended while cooking, Farmer said. Whatever the cause, being prepared for fires ahead of time can make all the difference, Farmer says.
“As soon as you determine that a fire has started, it’s important to start the process of getting out and alerting us,” he said. “We want to get there early so we can intervene early.”
To schedule a home evaluation or fire safety/prevention event, contact Senior Community Educator Sabrina Stowe at 336-773-7965 or firstname.lastname@example.org.