72 year-old Gene Welsch was sitting in his mobile home in Sioux Falls, South Dakota one night, watching a local news program about the growing resilient communities’ campaign focusing on home fire preparedness in the city.
The effort was convened by the American Red Cross and other community partners. It is part of the national Red Cross initiative to reduce home fire deaths and injuries by 25% across the nation in the next five years by going door-to-door distributing home fire prevention information, disaster education and escape planning and installing smoke alarms in homes that need them, free of charge. That night, Welsch learned that over 1,000 homes had been canvassed in his neighborhood in 2014.
Late one summer night, Gene’s smoke alarms started beeping. Knowing of the Growing Resilient program, he called the local fire department to get new smoke alarms installed. They were replaced that week. The alarms he had previously were about 30 years old and not functioning.
“It was one of those things you just don’t think about a whole lot,” Welsch said. “But we should be.”
One cold January night, while lying in his bedroom watching television, the screen went blue. He sat up as a smoke alarm in his hallway went off. The smoke was at head level. He tried to extinguish the fire for a moment, but after his attempt failed, Welsch escaped from his house as it became engulfed in flames.
Welsch’s home was destroyed. He lost all of his possessions including his glasses, driver's license, and clothing. But most importantly, his life was saved.
"I don't know how to say thank you," Welsch said as he got emotional. “That (smoke alarm) saved my life.”
On average, there are 130 residential fires per year in the city of Sioux Falls. There were nine fatalities in a 20 month span from 2012 until August of 2013. Welsch escaped with his life and now he wants others to take action.
"Do it. Get it done. Don't put it on the back burner till next week or next month," he said.
The collaborative effort "Growing Resilient," which promotes prevention and preparedness for fires and other disasters was established in 2013. Tony Burke, Red Cross Executive Director in Eastern South Dakota, was instrumental in bringing various community partners to the table for the campaign.
"He's alive today because of what community can do together, working together," Burke said.
Home fire fatalities in the U.S. have increased. 62 percent of those fire fatalities are directly attributed to nonfunctioning smoke alarms.
"Less than about a third of the population has done any form of preparedness over the last couple of years," Burke said. “We're not ready. We think we are, but we're not.”
The home fire preparedness campaign has already saved the lives of six people across the country.
1,200 Sioux Falls homes are already scheduled for a smoke alarm check this spring.