The sound is grating and abrasive, a knife through the quiet and louder than any din.
“Don’t worry, there’s a hush button,” Red Cross volunteer Christian Rahl told Raleigh resident Bobbie Jones while installing a smoke alarm in her hallway.
Volunteers from the Triangle Area Chapter of the American Red Cross spent Saturday morning and afternoon walking the streets around St. Augustine’s University, knocking on doors and installing free smoke alarms for whoever wanted them. Regional CEO Barry Porter said the effort was part of a national campaign by the emergency relief organization to reduce fire-related deaths 25 percent in five years.
“The community thinks the Red Cross is for natural disasters – hurricanes and tornadoes – but the biggest area of response for us is house fires,” Porter said. “The fire department calls the Red Cross in when it looks like the victim is going to have a difficult time recovering, especially if they’re without a home to sleep in.”
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According to Red Cross numbers, 60 percent of fire deaths occur in homes without smoke alarms, which Porter said is often older or rural homes. The group focused on an east Raleigh neighborhood because of its age and high number of fire calls.
“The fire department tells us which neighborhoods have the highest incident rates or the highest likelihood of incidents and this was one of them,” Porter said. “Unfortunately, death and injuries tend to motivate communities. Wilmington had five fire deaths in three days, then we installed 800 alarms in one day.”
The Red Cross spent the past couple of weeks letting the neighborhood know volunteers would be coming through and chose to install the alarms this weekend as a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.
“The holiday is not a day off, it’s a day on, a day of action,” Porter said. “King called the community to action, to be engaged in the community and this is in the spirit of that.”
Volunteers on Saturday had more than 100 alarms to offer residents, but wound up installing about half as many residents declined, weren’t home or already had alarms.
Still, the need was there. Of the first two houses to invite volunteers inside, either the alarms were inoperable or there weren’t any.
Bobbie Jones had breakfast on the stove when the volunteers knocked on her door. They installed alarms in the hallway, where one no longer worked, and in her kitchen and bedroom, where there weren’t any. She said that in the past, the fire department came around offering alarms or new batteries, but that she hadn’t seen them in a while. Jones said that she had had a fire in the past from hot cigarette ash igniting a trash can.
“I have no sense of smell, I didn’t know anything about it,” she said. “Then I see the lights outside my house and I’m wondering who they’re here for.”
Along with as many alarms as the residents wanted, volunteers tried to snuff out the next fire before it happened. Kate Anzinger, a student in the University of North Carolina’s emergency nursing program, warned about keeping space heaters too close to furniture and offered advice such as “keep an eye on what you fry.”
Nathan Blakeslee, disaster program specialist for the Eastern North Carolina Region Red Cross, said the three groups of volunteers combined to install 48 alarms on the day. On the way to those 48, there were many more “no, thank yous,” which didn’t discourage Blakeslee.
“It’s really the amount of alarms, not the number of houses, that’s important,” he said. “The more alarms you install, the more lives you’re affecting.”