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Preventing loss from fire requires help from everyone

Too often, we learn of missing or disabled alarms at scenes of fatal fires.

By Patricia Murtagh, CEO of the American Red Cross in Maine, and Joseph Thomas, State Fire Marshal.

While Maine has its share of fires, the past three month have been particularly difficult, as our state has seen 12 fire-related deaths, a staggering number, and one that approaches last year’s total of 19.

Even more heartbreaking is that all of 12 victims were young, with their lives ahead of them. The three fatal fires, in Biddeford, Portland, and Caribou, leave family, friends, and neighbors stunned and searching for answers.

Lewiston, perhaps more than any other community in northern New England, has seen first-hand the damaging power of fire. Several fires this year have served as all-too-familiar reminders of the 2013 blazes that displaced more than 200 residents.

The Red Cross may best be known for providing food, clothing, emotional support, and emergency housing for victims of fires and other disasters. Starting 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. The effort includes an educational component, as well as the installation of smoke alarms in high risk areas.

The program, just underway, includes a stop this month in Lewiston.

While the Red Cross is taking the lead on this program, every resident in Maine can take steps to reduce the risk of a serious fire.

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.

Smoke alarms have a lifespan of 10 years, so if yours are older than a decade, it’s a good idea to replace them. Today’s models have 10-year batteries, so you free from worrying about replacing them (but you should still test them each month).

In addition to working smoke alarms, you should develop and practice an emergency escape plan. This is particularly important if you have children.  The good news is that kids like these types of activities, and if you let them help with the planning,  they’re probably going to remember what to do should you ever have to get out of a burning house.

Escape plans help ensure that everyone knows what to do in a fire, when time is at a premium. A Red Cross survey found that Americans greatly overestimate the time you have to escape a fire. A staggering 62 percent said 5 minutes, while 18 percent thought 10 minutes.

How much time do you really have to escape a burning house? About 2 minutes. That’s all, so the quicker you get out the better. The early warning of a smoke alarm, combined with pre-determined escape routes, can mean the difference between life and death.

We’re in the midst of the holiday season and frigid winter weather is around the corner. While these are times for family and festivities, snowmen and skiing, they also bring a greater risk of fire, as the most common causes are cooking- and heating-related. As you can see, this is an especially important time to take extra precautions.

We hope you’ll never experience a fire. But if you do, working smoke alarms and an escape plan can help ensure you get out alive. That’s one of the best ways to ensure you’ll be around for many more happy holidays.