Article Written By: Allan Zullo, Communications Volunteer
It’s the expression on their faces that stays with me. Shock. Disbelief. Distress. They stare blankly into space as though wishing they were somewhere, anywhere, but here on the front yard of their burned-out home. Some weep. Some moan. Some suffer in silence. Anguish fills their eyes while they try processing what just happened to them. For most, it’s the worst day of their lives.
As a member of the Red Cross Disaster Action Team (DAT)—trained volunteers who are called to the scenes of personal disasters such as home fires—I have witnessed firsthand the devastating consequences when smoke alarms are not installed in residences or are not working properly (usually from failing to replace old batteries). DAT responders show up to offer victims emotional support, immediate financial assistance, and information to help families begin the process of recovery. Every call is different, some more tragic than others.
I cannot get out of my brain, the look on the grief-stricken face of a teenage mother who lost her infant daughter to smoke inhalation when their house caught fire from an apparent electrical short. Curled up in a ball on the couch of a friend after the late-night blaze destroyed her home, the woman clutched a blanket and sobbed. Her arms squeezed her chest as if to hold together the shattered pieces of her heart.
When she finally was able to answer a few questions, she said, “There was no warning… no sound… no nothing. All of a sudden, I smelled smoke. I tried to go to the back bedroom where my baby was sleeping, but the smoke was too thick, too hot. I heard her cry and then she stopped.” After uttering those gut-wrenching words, the young mother buried her head into the couch cushion.
If only the house had a smoke detector.
I think about the elderly woman who escaped her burning house with nothing but the housecoat she was wearing and her cellphone. The flames devoured her car keys, her purse, her possessions. She lost everything and more.
“I had lit a citronella candle on the back porch of my house to keep the bugs away,” she told me as firefighters snuffed out the last hotspot. “When I went to bed, I forgot to blow out the candle.” Shortly after midnight, the frantic barking of her beloved dog awakened her. “When I got out of bed, I saw a wall of flames, and I ran out of the house. But…” she choked up… “my dog didn’t make it.”
If only the house had a smoke detector.
Of the fire calls I’ve responded to, most victims did have working smoke alarms—and those devices saved their lives. Recently, a family of five safely scrambled out of their burning house after hearing the piercing sounds of smoke detectors that went off when an unattended candle torched the interior. “If it hadn’t been for the smoke alarms, well, I don’t even want to think about what could’ve happened,” said the head of the household.
So why I am telling you all this? October 6-12 is Fire Safety and Prevention Week. It’s a reminder to make sure you have functioning smoke alarms installed in every bedroom, in a common area outside the bedrooms, and at least one on each floor of your house.
Every day in the United States, seven people die in home fires, most often in residences that lack working smoke alarms. To save lives, Red Cross volunteers, along with local fire departments and other partners, have been canvassing at-risk neighborhoods, installing free smoke alarms and replacing batteries in existing detectors. In the last five years, Red Cross volunteers in the Greater Carolinas region have installed more than 9,400 smoke alarms free of charge. To request a free home installation of smoke detectors, go online to: Request A Free Smoke Alarm.
Let me drive home the point one more time: At another fire scene, an elderly man was sitting on the front steps of a neighbor, shaking his head and lamenting, “I can’t believe this has happened to me.” Fortunately, he had a working smoke detector that had alerted him to escape. He stared across the street at the charred, smoldering remains of his small house. “What am I going to do?” he asked. “I lost everything I own.”
“You can replace your things,” the neighbor told him. “At least you have your life, and that’s something nobody can replace.”