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Home Fires Are Biggest Threat to Families in U.S.


If someone is asked which disasters are most common in this country, the answer is usually big emergencies that affect a widespread area – events like hurricanes, floods and tornadoes. But a fire in the home is actually the most common threat to families in the United States.

HOME FIRES: Be Red Cross Ready!
  • Home fires pose the biggest threat to U.S. families
  • The Red Cross responds to about 170 fires a day – one fire response every eight minutes.
  • Follow these steps to be prepared for fire emergencies.

Each year, the American Red Cross and its 650 chapters respond to more than 63,600 home fires. Over and over again, Red Cross workers report to the scene of a fire, offering food, shelter and emotional support to those whose homes have been affected, as well as support to the firemen and emergency personnel responding to the fire.

Such was the case recently in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, a small town in Schuylkill County in the northeastern corner of the state. A fire was reported just after two in the morning that grew so large it took volunteer firefighters from Shenandoah and the surrounding communities to bring it under control. When it was over hours later, one occupant and two firefighters were injured, five homes were destroyed, and several people were left homeless.

Red Cross workers were on the scene from the Schuylkill and Eastern Northumberland County Chapter, a small but busy Red Cross unit headquartered in Pottsville, PA. Just days earlier, these same disaster volunteers responded to flooding, setting up a shelter, feeding emergency responders, working with county officials on damage assessment, and handing out clean-up kits to those whose homes had flooded.

The night of the fire in Shenandoah, Red Cross workers left their homes in the middle of the night to help those whose homes had been consumed by the fire. They made sure firefighters who spent a long, smoky night at the scene had something to drink and eat. They even managed to make arrangements for several family pets.

“When there is a fire, we are notified by the County Emergency Management Agency and we get ready to respond,” explained Executive Director Janet Curtis. “We call down our list of disaster volunteers, or we can page them through the county emergency system. Our Emergency Services Director coordinates everything and we are ready to help.” The chapter has relationships with local markets and restaurants which often provide canteen supplies for the families and responders. The chapter also has snacks and the ability to provide beverages on their emergency vehicle at the fire scene.

Upon arriving at a fire scene, Red Cross workers inform the fire chief and families that they are there and begin working with the families if they are ready. If someone is upset, Red Cross provides emotional support and maybe a blanket until they are ready to be interviewed and have their immediate needs assessed.

The Red Cross provides comfort kits containing such items as personal toiletries, and Client Assistance Cards which enable the family to purchase clothing, food, and seasonal items like winter coats if needed. If the family needs a place to stay, the Red Cross makes arrangements with nearby hotels or motels. The Red Cross also provides referral sheets with information about services available through other agencies in the area.

‘Many times if someone’s home has been destroyed, they feel as if they have lost control,” Curtis said. “The Client Assistance Card enables them to make personal decisions, to get what they want and need. We always explain that the help is not a hand-out, but an example of neighbor helping neighbor.”

The Schuylkill and Eastern Northumberland County responds to about 34 home fires a year with a small corps of about ten very active disaster volunteers spread over two counties. In comparison, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Chapter in Philadelphia responds to over 700 fires a year. But large or small, Red Cross Chapters are there when fires disrupt people’s lives.

So, what can you do to keep your family safe and prepared in case a fire starts? Keep items that can catch on fire at least three feet away from anything that gets hot, such as space heaters. Never smoke in bed. Talk to your children about the dangers of fire and keep matches and lighters out of reach. Turn off portable heaters when you leave a room or go to sleep.

Planning for emergencies is important. Make sure all household members know two ways to escape from every room of your home, and set up a meeting place outside in case of fire. Practice escaping from your home at least twice a year and at different times of the day. Teach household members to stop, drop and roll if their clothing should catch on fire.

Smoke alarms save lives. You should:

  • Install smoke alarms on every level of your home, inside bedrooms and outside sleeping areas.
  • Check monthly that smoke alarms are working properly by pushing the test button.
  • Replace batteries in smoke alarms at least once a year.
  • Replace smoke alarms every ten years.

For more information about fire safety and steps you can take to be prepared, visit www.redcross.org.

Disaster volunteers are always needed and there are many different ways to serve such as driving a vehicle or serving food. Volunteers can find their niche, according to Curtis, and receive training on what to do when helping at a disaster. If you would like to help by becoming a Red Cross volunteer, visit the volunteering section of our web site, or contact your local Red Cross chapter.