The American Red Cross has long been one of the disaster-relief agencies families turn to when a fire destroys their home or apartment. Now the group is trying to ensure more people get out of those fires alive.
More than two dozen volunteers fanned out through two neighborhoods Saturday morning – one in North Raleigh and one in Knightdale – to make sure residents had working, up-to-date smoke alarms where sleeping residents could hear them, and to install lithium-battery-powered alarms in homes that didn’t.
“This one is 15 years old,” Colin Condreay said, looking at the back of an alarm in a bedroom of a home at Foxhall Village, a rambling, well-kept mobile home development off Buffaloe Road. “We’ll need to put a new one here.”
The work is part of a national effort by the Red Cross to reduce the number of home fire fatalities by 25 percent over five years. The agency launched the campaign in October.
David T. Garrison, senior disaster manager for the Red Cross in Eastern North Carolina, said the agency had installed about 3,200 smoke alarms through the end of June, and hopes to do a similar number this fiscal year.
At least 64 people died as a result of fires in North Carolina last year, according to the N.C. fire marshal. The National Association of Fire Investigators says 60 percent of all home fire fatalities occur in homes with no functioning smoke alarm.
The Red Cross works with the fire marshal’s office, local fire departments, the N.C. Baptist Aging Ministries, the state Division of Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, and the UNC Wilmington Latino Alliance, as well as companies such as Wal-Mart, Lowe’s and Home Depot, to acquire the alarms and install them.
The work relies heavily on volunteers. Saturday’s volunteers included a group of local UPS employees, who donned Red Cross vests and gave a day of their time in part to satisfy a company request to perform at least six hours per year of community service.
After a brief instructional session at the Red Cross headquarters off New Bern Avenue, the volunteers went out in teams of about four each, with a folding stepladder, a rechargeable drill, a box of smoke alarms and a clipboard with a map and forms to fill out.
Where no one was home, they left a package of information about the program.
Shanikqua Johnson had read the letter the Red Cross sent in advance of the visits and was glad to let in a team of volunteers to replace her smoke alarms. Her double-wide mobile home had an alarm until a couple of months ago, she said, but it was taken down for repair work to a wall and had not been reinstalled.
Volunteer Harvey Riddle climbed the stepladder and put up new alarms in each of Johnson’s hallways, one near the bedroom she shares with her husband and one near where her sons sleep.
“One less thing for me to worry about,” Johnson said, thanking the group for the work.
During each visit, a member of the team talks with the residents about their escape plan in case there ever is a fire.
Fire-safety experts say modern smoke alarms are designed to last about 10 years. Any longer, they say, and the alarm may sound when tested but its sensor may not detect smoke.
Any home that relies on a hard-wired smoke detector, officials say, should make sure the device has a battery backup. All alarms should be tested about once a month.
Ruth Parsons, a rising senior at Enloe High School, helped with the program Saturday. While her teammates installed the alarms, Parsons used her Spanish-language skills to talk with a homeowner about fire safety, reminding a mother of a young boy that the family should get out quickly and meet in the front of the house if there’s an emergency.
Already, the Red Cross told the volunteers, the alarms volunteers have installed have helped people escape injury.
“We hear these stories about how the alarms have saved lives,” Parsons said. “It touches all of us.”
How to help
To help with the Red Cross Home Fires Campaign, go to www.redcross.org/triangle or call 919-231-1602.