By Patricia Murtagh, CEO of the American Red Cross in Maine, and Joseph Thomas, Maine State Fire Marshal
There are few sounds more concerning than the siren of a fire truck, rushing to the scene of yet another blaze. We hold our breath and hope the damage is minimal and that everyone escaped safely.
In the past three months, our state has seen 12 fire-related deaths, a staggering number. The fires, in Biddeford, Portland, and Caribou, all cut short young, promising lives, leaving family, friends, and the community shocked, numb, and searching for answers.
When a fire breaks out, first responders are joined by a team of Red Cross disaster volunteers that provide food, clothing, emotional support, and emergency housing for the victims. This year, the organization is teaming with the State Fire Marshal’s office and local fire departments on a nationwide initiative that aims to reduce fire-related deaths and injuries by 25 percent over the next 5 years.
To succeed, this effort requires the support and participation of all Mainers, including local fire departments, business owners, community leaders — and the readers of this paper.
What can everyday people do? First, make sure you have working smoke alarms. Simply put, smoke alarms save lives. Your odds of surviving a fire increase 50 percent if you have a working smoke alarm. We recently responded to a fire that caused significant damage to the building, but there were no deaths or injuries. While it’s too early to determine the role smoke alarms played in that outcome, we were pleased to hear several of them sounding as firefighters extinguished the blaze.
Too often, we learn of missing or disabled alarms at scenes of fatal fires.
Alarms should be installed on each floor, outside of sleeping areas, and inside of each bedroom. It’s important to test your alarm monthly and vacuum them regularly, to keep them free of dust. Yours should also have a carbon monoxide alarm on each floor and outside of sleeping areas to protect your family from this deadly gas.
Many people are surprised to learn that smoke alarms have a lifespan of 10 years. If yours are older than that, replace them. The newer models have 10-year batteries, so you’re covered for the life of the alarm (although you should continue to test them monthly).
In addition to working smoke alarms, our second life-saving tip is to develop an emergency escape plan — and practice it. Include every member of your family, especially kids. If you involved your children in the planning phase, they’ll be more likely to support the plan. They might even have fun doing the drills.
Escape plans help ensure that everyone knows what to do in a fire, when time is at a premium.
Your plan should include two ways of escape from each room, and a place in the neighborhood for family members to meet. It’s also a good idea to identify a meeting place away from your neighborhood, should something prevent you from returning to your neighborhood. A relative or friend’s home is ideal.
If you need another reason to install smoke alarms and practice escape plans, here it is: a Red Cross survey found that Americans greatly overestimate how much time you have to escape a fire. A staggering 62 percent said 5 minutes, while 18 percent thought 10 minutes.
In reality, you have about 2 minutes to escape a burning house. That’s not much time. The early warning of a smoke alarm, combined with a pre-determined escape route, can mean the difference between life and death.
This is particularly critical as we head into the holidays and cold weather. The most common types of fires are cooking- and heating-related, so this is an especially important time to take extra precautions.
Most of us will never experience a home fire. But if the unexpected happens, you may only have one chance to get out. So please, take a few minutes to check or install smoke alarms and practice an escape plan.
Consider it a gift to yourself this holiday season.