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Saving Lives One Smoke Alarm at a Time

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“I’d be devastated if we lost someone. I feel much, much safer.” Shara Leach, Nevada Resident

In a crowded auditorium of more than 60 volunteers, a powerful statement for a Saturday morning was spoken.

“You’re spending your Saturday potentially saving the life of every person in that home.”

Brandon Holstrom, Regional Disaster Functions Support Manager for the Iowa Region of the American Red Cross, has given similar speeches to crowds of volunteers many times before; the message always sticks before they head out the door.

“I’m here because my father was a firefighter,” said Charles Shrader with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “He’s not with us anymore, but I know he’d be proud I’m going out to make a difference.”

People from the Iowa Red Cross, Nevada Fire Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other community partners spent hours going door to door in neighborhoods determined by the fire department to be high risk for a fire in the small Iowa town of Nevada on Saturday, September 20th. Fifteen teams of dedicated Iowans knocked on more than 300 doors. They installed new smoke alarms, tested existing smoke alarm batteries, installed new batteries, and talked about developing fire escape plans.

Throughout the mobile home community of Country Club Estates on that Saturday, a familiar chirp of smoke alarms being tested filled the air. Tim Bledsoe, Shara Leach and their two daughters Riviera and Caprice received two new smoke alarms in their home. “Knowing that we can know to get out of here, that’s important,” Leach said.

“I’d be devastated if we lost someone. I feel much, much safer.”

Volunteers Bob Deffenbaugh and Andrew Norman and Nevada Firefighter Gary Howard sat down with the family and talked about their fire escape plan. “Where are you going to meet if there’s a fire?” Norman asked the girls.

“By the mailbox,” 8-year old Riviera shouted proudly.

“Will you promise me you’ll draw your escape plan and go over it with your family?” Norman asked Riviera. “I’m putting you in charge.”

Riviera nodded enthusiastically before the team departed to check out another home.

Down the street from little Riviera’s home, 88-year old Dorthea Ridgeway flagged the team of volunteers to check her smoke alarms. “I knew you were coming and I live alone,” she said. “I want to stay safe.”

Ridgeway takes disaster preparedness seriously; she is also working with her community to find a tornado shelter for her mobile home community.

Annually, nearly 2,500 people die and 13,000 people are injured in home fires. Many of these injuries and deaths could be prevented if individuals were armed with the proper tools and education. That’s why in October 2014 the American Red Cross is launching the Home Fire Preparedness Campaign. The goal of the five-year campaign is to reduce the number of fire deaths and injuries in the United States by 25 percent and focuses on projects like the smoke alarm installation event in Nevada.

Guadalupe Guerrero knows the value of a working smoke alarm too well. She thought she had turned off her stove after cooking on August 27, 2014, but just a few minutes later her Nevada home was filled with smoke.

“Sometimes if you push the knob too hard, the burner will turn back on,” Guerrero said. “The apartment filled up with smoke so fast!” The sprinkler system at her apartment complex put the fire out quickly, but the smoke alarms in her home did not go off. 

“They didn’t have batteries in them,” she said. “If I would have been asleep, I’m not sure what would have happened.”

The fire and sprinkler system used to douse the flames damaged Guerrero’s unit and two other homes. Since Guerrero and her five year old daughter would not be able get back in their home Nevada Fire Chief Ray Reynolds called the Red Cross to help. “It was such a great experience,” she recalled. “They came to us and helped with money so we could stay in a hotel and get food. I’d never been through anything like this before and even though it wasn’t a huge fire, the Red Cross was so comforting. I feel very grateful for their help.”

Guerrero’s friend and neighbor, Rosario Herrera, welcomed Red Cross volunteers into her home to test the smoke alarms in her apartment; they too weren’t connected correctly leaving her vulnerable to a delayed alert of danger. The Red Cross team installed two brand new smoke alarms in Herrera’s home and discussed the importance of creating a preparedness plan in case another fire, like the one that devastated her friend’s home, happened to her.
“I’m very grateful to the American Red Cross for making me think about how I would get out of a fire if it happened here,” said Rosario Herrera.