The details of the South Miami-Dade fire call that Carolina Valencia responded to were harrowing: The smoke alarms, left useless by dead batteries, melted. The father passed out while getting his wife and child out of their smoke-filled home. Flames blocked them from escaping through the front door.
"The alarms didn't work. They were renters and didn't know the batteries had run out. They didn't know you're supposed to test them," said Valencia, a Red Cross Disaster Action Team volunteer.
It was sheer luck that the father woke up late at night and wondered why the bedroom seemed hazy. When he tried to open the bedroom door to clear out the smoke, the door was so hot that it burned his hand.
Blocked from the front door, the family escaped through another door. Everyone survived.
"It was very humbling to see how this man saved his family, but it's also sad to see how the smoke alarms failed," said Valencia, a former firefighter. "I inspected the place. There were three smoke alarms. None of the alarms went off."
“People often don't check the batteries regularly,” Valencia said. "People do not know that they have to get this done; they don't know the importance of this.”
"Please check your alarm! Or please ask us to check it. You're not wasting our time."
It is experiences like these that fuel the Red Cross Home Fire Campaign, which has a goal of reducing fire-related deaths and injuries by 25 percent.
On a sunny Saturday in March, 30 Red Cross volunteers and staff members met at the back of a mobile home park in southern Broward County, where they were organized into teams and given ladders and buckets of supplies.
Their assignment: Install free smoke alarms in homes that didn't have them, put fresh batteries in older alarms, and talk to residents about making a family plan for safely escaping their home if there is a fire.
Residents of the Hollywood mobile home park had been told in advance that Red Cross teams would be there to install the smoke alarms. Now some residents were skeptical that this service was truly free (it is), while others hurried down the park's narrow streets, waving at volunteers and asking for alarms.
The second group probably didn't have the statistics, but they knew the gist of what the Red Cross knows: You have less than two minutes to get out of a burning house. A working smoke alarm can cut the risk of death in a home fire by half.
On that day, Red Cross teams installed 104 alarms – usually two or three per home – and educated 132 residents on the importance of fire safety and the steps they should take in case they experience a home fire.
Across South Florida, other teams have done similar work this Spring, installing several hundred alarms from Sebring to Vero Beach, Estero to Tamarac and Opa-Locka.
Although the Red Cross installs smoke alarms and educates residents about fire safety year-round, the organization's most visible effort, the Sound the Alarm campaign, happens in the Spring. The national goal is to install 50,000 free smoke alarms in 50 communities across the country this month – including about 950 homes in Jacksonville, Tampa Bay and Sebring, Florida.
The fire preparedness work feeds into the Red Cross' goal of reducing fire-related deaths and injuries by 25 percent. It's a subject that the organization is well acquainted with.
Already this year, Red Cross volunteers have responded to almost 21,000 home fires in the U.S., providing financial assistance for meals and temporary lodging, connecting people with counselors and helping them put together recovery plans. Home fires account for most of the 60,000 disasters that the Red Cross responds to annually.
Given those numbers, it's not surprising that the Red Cross has taken action to reduce the tragedy of home fires.
Since the Home Fire Campaign was launched in 2014, the Red Cross says it has helped save at least 1,243 lives, installed 2.3 million alarms, replaced 93,000 batteries in older alarms and helped almost 850,000 households put together escape plans. The Red Cross is working toward a goal of installing 2.5 million smoke alarms.
The volunteers get training in advance, then work in teams of three: an installer, who helps the residents decide where to place each new alarm and then installs it; a recorder, who assists the installer and keeps track of what work is done at each address; and an educator, who talks to each household about the importance of escape plans and shows them how to create one.
There's a skill to placing an alarm. Working smoke alarms should be placed on every level of the home, including lower levels of a home. You want it in a spot where there's plenty of air circulation, so the smoke reaches the alarm quickly. Smoke alarms should not be installed in the kitchen or bathroom to avoid a false activation. False or nuisance alarms are the leading cause of residents disconnecting their smoke alarm; this can leave families vulnerable to death or injury in the event of a home fire. The most important placement is in a hallway outside a group of bedrooms, where it will awaken people who are sleeping.
Residents often ask installers to put the alarm where it's not readily visible, said Jose Rancano, a Greater Miami & The Keys Red Cross volunteer who helped install alarms in an Opa-Locka neighborhood this Spring. Rancano, whose former occupation entailed installing smoke alarms, gently advises residents about why the alarms shouldn't be placed out of sight.
"They have maybe one smoke alarm tucked in the back somewhere, where they thought it would catch everything. We educate them," he said. "If you have a smoke alarm in one corner of the house, maybe by the time the smoke reaches it, the fire has spread, maybe it's burning the front door, and they don't have a way to get out."
Some of the residents who let Red Cross volunteers install smoke alarms were skeptical but ultimately glad to have the alarms, he said. "They were grateful, they were surprised that we were doing it," he said. "People don't really realize how many fires there are daily."
Twelve years ago, before she was involved with the Red Cross, Jill Palmer learned the importance of placing smoke alarms correctly.
She and her family had taken steps to be safe in case of a fire. They had smoke alarms with working batteries in their Fort Myers home. They had talked about an escape plan after their son learned about fire safety in his second-grade class.
"They told him to find a safe space" where the family could gather if there was a fire in their home, said Palmer, now Executive Director of the Red Cross Florida Gulf Coast to Heartland Chapter. They chose the stop sign at the corner of their property.
Two weeks later, on a November evening pleasant enough to leave their windows open, her husband shook her awake at about 1 a.m. "He said, 'Jill, you need to wake up. The house is on fire. You call 911. I'm going to get the children out of bed.'"
No alarms had gone off, but she heard popping and crackling noises. They had hired a contractor to upgrade their old-fashioned carport and had cleared out flammable materials in preparation and stacked them against the side of the house. Now those materials were exploding, and that side of the house was on fire. She couldn't get to the kitchen to grab her purse. Her car was on fire.
"I got my 2 1/2-year-old daughter out of her crib, my husband got our 6-year-old son. I told our son to go stand by the stop sign in our yard."
It wasn't until they were walking out of the house that an alarm went off.
"It's an old Florida concrete block house," she said. "It took a while for the smoke to permeate. Then the smoke started to come in through the attic."
Her family survived and got assistance from the Red Cross. The house had to be torn down, but they rebuilt on the same property. Later, because of her job with a hospital and work with the United Way, she got involved with the Red Cross. Now she talks at fundraising and other events about the night their house caught fire.
"I share that experience, knowing what it's like to be standing in your front yard and watching everything you own go up in flames," she said.
Valencia had a case recently where a smoke alarm and a 5-year-old boy saved his family.
A fire started in the kitchen at about 2:30 a.m. An alarm went off in the kitchen, but the parents, asleep in their bedroom, didn't hear it. Their 5-year-old had gotten out of bed, though, and was in the living room watching television, the volume turned down low.
"The alarm actually scared the kid who thought, 'uh-oh, what did I touch?'" Valencia said. Worried, the child went to his parents' bedroom and woke them up in time for all to escape.
The fire caused his parents to install more alarms and the kid to set a goal. Later, Valencia said, when the child was told that he hadn't done anything wrong and had, in fact, saved his family, "he was walking around with his thumbs-up, saying, ‘Yeah, I'm the man. I'm going to be a fireman.'"
Thanks to the generosity of donors, our services are free and available for all those in need. Help families prepare for, respond to and recover from home fires by giving at SoundTheAlarm.org.
Written by Marjie Lambert, American Red Cross Public Affairs