Federal grant promotes fire prevention in Scarborough, Falmouth

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SCARBOROUGH — Mark and Michelle Lowell’s Bridle Court home is well equipped for fire safety, with four smoke detectors and a garage heat detector.

On Wednesday, the family’s protection was enhanced with the installation of a smoke detector designed to alert their deaf son, Ethan, 13, in case of an emergency.

The new hard-wired detector in his bedroom also has a strobe light and vibrating device that will activate with the alarm, installed as part of a $286,000 federal Department of Homeland Security fire prevention grant to local communities.

Scarborough Fire Chief Michael Thurlow and Falmouth Fire Chief Howard Rice Jr. said the installation program will be fully introduced July 15, with the intent of providing alarms for older homes, and those with younger, elderly, or hearing-impaired residents.

With a living room full of fire officials and Scarborough Deputy Chief Gary Sandler upstairs measuring out the fit for the new detector in Ethan’s bedroom, Michelle Lowell said the family learned of the grant program through a notice included in their tax bill.

“We are always after the best technology,” Mark Lowell said as he watched Sandler.

The fire departments are working with the Portland-based Maine Center on Deafness and Steve Willis, who heads the fire science technology department at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland. The departments are inspecting homes on request, installing detectors and adaptive devices if needed, and spreading the word about fire prevention and safety.

Elissa Moran, Maine Center on Deafness executive director, said the combination of strobe lights and “bed shakers” are needed because hearing-impaired people may react differently to the alarms and the vibrating device may slip to the floor as someone is sleeping.

The tactile devices can also save the lives of elderly people who wear hearing aids during the day and take them off at night, Thurlow added.

Willis said the grant could provide up to 6,000 alarms and devices for area residents, but the devices will not be available until late August because of product shortages.

While Moran emphasized the combinations of alarms can save lives, Willis said fire prevention tips and emergency procedures are a critical element in the program.

“The first line is notification. The second piece is an escape plan, being able to get out of the home very quickly,” he said.

Data compiled by Richard Taylor of the state fire marshal’s office shows 160 people died in Maine fires from 2002 to 2011, with people 65 and older accounting for a third of those deaths “in a typical year.” Ninety percent of the fire deaths occurred in homes.

“You can’t see through smoke, it is very dark, it is very scary,” Willis said.

While it was estimated 40 years ago that people had about 17 minutes to safely escape a developing residential fire, Willis said the estimate was reduced to three minutes in 2005 because home furnishings now use more petroleum-based materials.

Getting out quickly depends on a working alarm and a well-rehearsed plan that includes a meeting place for everyone.

“And never go back inside for anything,” Willis added.

Homeowners should replace battery-operated and hard-wired detectors that are a decade old, Thurlow said. Local ordinances require new homes to be constructed with hard-wired smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

A common reason smoke detectors do not work is because batteries are removed or have not been replaced. The detectors to be distributed will have 10-year batteries sealed inside, Thurlow said.

The grant, which does not require any matching local funds, is intended for use in single-family dwellings, but does not have income restrictions. Thurlow said residents of Scarborough and Falmouth can call 730-4298 after July 15.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Sidebar Elements

Scarborough Deputy Fire Chief Gary Sandler sizes up a spot Wednesday for a new hard-wired smoke and carbon monoxide detector, part of a $286,000 federal grant awarded to local communities.

Scarborough resident Michelle Lowell, left, and her son, Ethan, hear details of a fire prevention program from Scarborough Fire Chief Michael Thurlow on Wednesday. Firefighters installed a smoke and carbon monoxide detector with accessories to alert Ethan, who is deaf, in case of emergencies.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.