Lynn Sentoni, a 79-year-old resident of Redwood City, is a true believer in the Home Fire Campaign the American Red Cross launched in 2014. That's because she has seen first-hand how the program's smoke-alarm installation efforts can actually save lives.
For Sentoni, her moment of truth came late in the afternoon on November 28, 2015. While reading on her living-room sofa, she began to smell smoke inside her home in a 175-space trailer park. At that exact moment, two smoke alarms that Red Cross volunteers had installed in her home just a year earlier — provided as part of the organization's then-new fire-prevention campaign — sounded their twin alarms.
"I only had time to grab my portable phone, run outside and call 9-1-1," Sentoni says. "The fire department was there within four minutes — not soon enough to save my home but soon enough to prevent the fire from igniting the propane and gasoline tanks that were connected to my RV. If those tanks had exploded, the fire might have leveled the entire park."
Investigators later determined that the fire started when the propane heater in Sentoni's RV malfunctioned, igniting the wall behind the unit. In addition to her home, she lost most of her possessions.
But here's the moral of the story: Sentoni, herself, not only survived; she was uninjured. And today, after purchasing a used RV with insurance money, she's making a new home in the same space in the same park.
"In my particular case, the fire occurred when I was awake, so I might have gotten out of my home in time just because I smelled the smoke," Sentoni says. "But if the fire had occurred at night, if it had occurred when I was sleeping, if I hadn't smelled the smoke, those Red Cross smoke alarms would have saved my life."
Fire experts agree, saying people generally believe they have more time than they actually do to escape a burning structure. In fact, statistics show that people may have as few as two minutes to escape a burning home before it’s too late to get out.
Given her brush with death, Sentoni believes that statistic. "A fire not only can take hold quickly, it can take your life quickly," she says.
In reflecting on her experience, Sentoni also is grateful for the "disaster services" assistance she received from the Red Cross volunteers, as well as the support given by family, friends and neighbors. "The Red Cross offered me temporary housing, which fortunately I didn't need because of a friend's generosity," she says.
"But they also helped me with food, clothing, first aid — and of course by installing those smoke alarms a year earlier," Sentoni says. "I am very thankful for all of the help from everybody that I received. I am alive, doing OK and getting back on my feet."
The Red Cross responds to nearly 70,000 disasters each year in the United States – and the vast majority of these are home fires.
The organization's Home Fire Campaign, conducted nationally in partnership with local fire-prevention agencies, seeks to increase the use of smoke alarms in neighborhoods with higher numbers of home fires; the program also encourages all Americans to develop and practice fire-escape plans.
The goal is to reduce deaths and injuries from home fires by as much as 25 percent in the program's first five years.