By Betsy Senescu, American Red Cross volunteer
I arrived at the meeting place bleary-eyed, at 8:00 a.m. sharp. By some miracle, a crew of others had already established a small festival-like atmosphere, with registration and information tents, bagels and thankfully, coffee.
As a volunteer at my first Sound the Alarm event, I’d signed up to help install free smoke alarms in one of our local communities, going door to door like Girls Scouts selling cookies. But, instead of hawking thin mints, we were peddling the gift of safety and life.
I registered, found I’d been assigned to Team 4, and mustered with the group near the food as the orientation began. We were greeted by Orange County Fire Authority Chief Rob Capobianco, who in 30 years, noted, “Few programs make an impact like this one.”
American Red Cross Regional CEO Linda Voss concurred, adding, “This is such a worthwhile program – it DOES save lives.”
Then Red Cross Community Preparedness Manager Amy Estey gave us some quick training. We were told to be ultra-friendly as canvassed the neighborhood to install smoke alarms. The liberal use of the word “Free!” was encouraged and we were sent off. “If we were capable of selling’ ourselves with even a sliver of Estey’s enthusiasm, it’d be a shoo-in,” I thought. “We can’t save lives if we can’t get across the threshold!” she hollered, as the teams set out.
Our designated neighborhood, a short walk from the meeting place, had been selected because the houses were older. Many would have original smoke alarms, if any, and the residents might be elderly: both unlikely to test their existing smoke alarms, and at greater risk in an actual fire.
Our mission was to educate them on the importance of smoke alarms and fire prevention, and help them establish a fire escape plan. Most importantly, we had to earn their trust and get that invitation to, “Come on in” to test and replace their smoke alarms.
No one answered the doors at the first two homes. A curtain rustled. A dog barked. Other evidence suggested someone was home, but with no response we simply left our packet of information on the doorknob and respectfully departed.
At the third house, a harried young father answered the door. They had just moved in, he explained, and already had smoke alarms. As he spoke a little boy waved at us from the window. This is just the family we wanted to help! A large two-story house with small children.
Statistics tell us kids under the age of five are twice as likely to die in a home fire than the rest of the population. Alas, the father declined everything but our packet of information. Dejected we continued on, but were finally rewarded by our encounter with Marlene and her lively puppy Daisy.
Volunteers had placed fliers on the doors in advance of our visit, and Marlene was waiting for us. She cheerfully welcomed our team in. My team members Ryan and Bo set to work in the bedrooms checking and ultimately replacing smoke alarms, as Selena began discussing the escape plan. Chrystine buzzed between the two parties, helping and supervising, while I filled out the requisite forms.
In the five years since the inception of the Sound the Alarm program, over 2 million smoke alarms have been installed, making over 864,000 households safer, with 715 lives saved thanks to smoke alarms installed by the Red Cross and its partners!
And we had just added to that success. Bolstered by Marlene’s friendliness and appreciation we pressed on, but had another five passes before we scored another “hit.”
It was a night-and-day difference, as we now entered a house bustling with people of all ages. There were several middle-aged woman smiling over the stove, where amazing aromas were emanating. A toddler scooted around in a toy car. A couple of teenage girls sat on the sofa, tapping on their phones. The girls, in particular one who introduced herself as Fernanda, ended up being tremendously helpful translating for her mother, who explained they were getting ready for a baby shower. Despite their busy schedule and full house, they understood the importance of what we were there to do, and welcomed the intrusion!
Once again our team set to work, assessing, testing and ultimately installing eight smoke alarms! As we worked, a few teenage boys emerged. A small girl tottered about, as did grandma. Prior to our Sound the Alarm visit, this family had just one smoke alarm to protect a reported seven occupants in a five-bedroom house. Now, armed with our free smoke alarms, fire safety information and a fire escape plan, they had just increased their chance of survival in the event of a fire.
On average, home fires claim seven lives every day, but having working smoke alarms can cut that risk in half. That’s why the Red Cross is rallying 27,000 volunteers to install 100,000 free smoke alarms nationwide during Sound the Alarm events this spring 2020. Volunteers will canvass neighborhoods across the country to install free smoke alarms, share safety information and fundraise to help families prepare for, respond to and recover from home fires.
Individuals, corporations and organizations are encouraged to participate. Two of my teammates, Chrystine and Bo, were part of an eight-person team volunteering from Hyundai Motor America. Chrystine explained Hyundai is very active in the community, partnering with several charities including the American Red Cross, and also hosts an annual blood drive at their headquarters. Ryan was training to be a firefighter, and fulfilling his service hours. And Selena was a single mom who, like me, simply wanted to make a difference in her community.
There are a variety of ways to support the Red Cross Home Fire Campaign and Sound the Alarm events. To learn more or to volunteer for an upcoming event near you, please visit SoundTheAlarm.org/DTS.