WESTBROOK — Seven people die every day in the U.S. in house fires. The American Red Cross is partnering with fire professionals in a campaign to change that statistic.
Through “Sound the Alarm,” a nationwide fire safety push that runs through May 13, the American Red Cross aims to install 100,000 free smoke alarms at houses in 100 communities across the country, including Portland, South Portland and Westbrook.
On May 12, teams of volunteers will be visiting homes in Portland and South Portland and The Hamlet, a mobile home neighborhood on Saco Street in Westbrook to install the alarms and help families develop fire emergency plans.
Ann Kim, the director of external communications for the American Red Cross, said specific neighborhoods in Portland and South Portland have not been finalized. The Red Cross, she said, is working with fire officials in those communities to figure out the best neighborhoods to target.
The agency says a working fire alarm can be the difference between life or death for a homeowner.
“Fire experts tell us people have about two minuted to exit when there is a house fire. That’s really fast when you think about people stopping to get their kids, or maybe their jacket or cellphone,” Kim said. “Two minutes is really quick. Smoke alarms give an immediate warning. When you have a working smoke alarm in the house, you cut your risk in half. That is why we are doing this work.”
State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas, a supporter of the initiative, said most house fires occur in a building where there are no working smoke detectors.
“In many cases, 60 percent, we find people don’t have a working smoke detector or believe that the detectors are protecting them, but they are past (their) useful life. Consequently, they think they are protected, but they are not even though they see it there on the ceiling or wall,” Thomas said.
Portland, South Portland and Westbrook are the focus of the May 12 event not necessarily because they are problem areas in terms of fire safety, but rather because of their population density.
“We do this work throughout the year, even in the winter,” Kim said. “Most of the time it is smaller events in smaller communities. For this big push, it made sense to have a concentrated population so we could get a lot of work done in one day.”
The Red Cross is still looking for volunteers for the Portland-South Portland-Westbrook campaign to go house to house to educate homeowners about fire safety, install the fire alarms, and document when and where the alarms were installed.
Kim said individuals are also needed before the event May 1, 2, 8 and 9 between 4 and 7 p.m. to canvass neighborhoods, hand out information and set up appointments for home visits. The team will schedule home visits on May 12 from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Individuals can also sign up to help with logistics for the day of the event.
Interested volunteers can find more information about the initiative at soundthealarm.org/maine or by calling 874-1192 ext. 115.
Thomas said it is recommended that fire alarms are replaced 10 years after the date stamped on the device on the manufacturer. He recommends replacing the batteries in an alarm powered by 9-volt batteries twice a year: in the fall when clocks are pushed back an hour for Daylight Saving Time, and in the spring when they are pushed forward.
Better yet, he recommends using an alarm with a lithium battery sealed inside. That, he said, “really removes the human element, if you will, of maintaining the alarm.”
The National Fire Prevention Association recommends placing a fire alarm inside and outside each bedroom and one on each floor of a home, including the basement. The best alarms to use, according to the association, are ones that are interconnected so the alarm will go off no matter where the fire originates.
Alarms should be tested monthly, and specialized alarms are available for those who are deaf or have hearing loss.
State law dictates that smoke alarms must be installed on the corridor and hallway of each floor of an apartment building that is more than three stories, and makes it a crime to knowingly interfere with or uninstalls a smoke alarm, except temporarily when necessary during construction projects.
Kim said the Red Cross responds to 300 fires a year in Maine.
“We are not the first responders. We aren’t the ones who are putting out the fire or pulling people from buildings. Our role is to help people in the immediate aftermath. We provide financial assistance so people have a place to stay or clothes. When people run out of the house, they often don’t have what they need,” she said.
The American Red Cross, she added, also helps to replace prescriptions or eyeglasses that might have been lost in the fire and provides emotional support or help linking to available resources after the event.
Thomas said because of the role the American Red Cross plays in post-fire recovery, the organization has a “vested interest” in an effort like Sound the Alarm.
“It is in their best interest to try to prevent house fires, just like it is from a fire services perspective,” he said.
Since it began in 2014, the Home Fire Campaign and Sound the Alarm initiative have led to the installation of more than 1.2 million smoke alarms in more than 500,000 households across the country, and have saved more than 400 lives. The Sound the Alarm initiative in Maine has installed more than 3,200 fire alarms and helped more than 700 homes develop fire escape plans.
Kristen Simas, center, American Red Cross disaster program manager, assigns volunteer teams to install free smoke alarms and provide home fire safety education.