The Tale of Two Proactive Fire Chiefs

In 1977 District of Columbia Fire Chief Burton Johnson invited the citizens of the city to visit any fire station to learn all they needed to know about smoke detectors. In 2007 D.C. Fire and EMS Chief of the District of Columbia Dennis Rubin launched a program to have firefighters visit every home in the city to insure that families have working smoke detectors. "It was the best of times..."

In the 70's decade Washington, D.C. had some of the highest fire death rates in the nation (49.9 per million population). "It was the worst of times..."

During the 70's residential smoke detectors became available. The District of Columbia was one of the first metro cities to pass smoke detector legislation for new and existing residential occupancies to reduce the devastating fire death rates.

Every D.C. firefighter was trained on residential smoke detectors in 1976. This training included why smoke detectors were needed, how they worked, how they were installed and what the codes, standards and laws were. In addition, a smoke detector training manual was developed and distributed to every company in the department.

A mass media campaign called "Operation Return" was initiated to capitalize on the publics' moment of interest when fire tragedy occurred. Community Fire Safety Education personnel would return to the location of fatal fires and explain to the media what would have prevented the tragedy. In most cases, a smoke detector would have given the occupants and victims time to escape. Local meetings were held to help the community learn from the tragedy to keep it from happening again.

Thirty years of smoke alarms have paid fire safety dividends. "It was the best of times..."

In 2006 Washington, D.C. had 12 fire fatalities. But one fire death is too many if it is your child - especially if the smoke alarm was not working.

On the night April 28, 2007 a fire started in five-year-old Asia Sutton's home. Unknown to her family, the smoke alarms were not working. When Asia's mom and dad woke up it was too late for them to rescue their daughter and firefighters has no chance to save her life. "It was the worst of times..."

Unfortunately, this type of tragedy is repeated time and time again in our country. The U.S. Fire Administration estimates that as many as 40 percent of residential smoke alarms today are not working. How many smoke alarms are not working in your community?

On July 21, 2007 Fire and EMS Chief Dennis Rubin along with Mayor Anthony Williams, the D.C. City Council and Mr. and Mrs. Sutton launched the Smoke Alarm Verification and Utilization (SAV-U) program. The Fire and EMS Department will visit every home to make sure the smoke detectors are working, replace batteries, and install new detectors if needed. If the family has young children the department will supply smoke alarms that can be programmed with the voice of the child's mother. Research indicates that mom's voice is the most effective sound to wake up sleeping children.

On the third Saturday of each month the District of Columbia will "Take it (SAV-U) to the streets. The D.C. Fire & EMS Department, City Council, Mayor's office, local volunteer groups, IAFF Local 36, and corporate sponsors will go door-to-door to make sure every family has working smoke alarms. This program will continue until the citizens of D.C. are sure that all smoke alarms can SAV-U. "It will be the best of times!"

If the nations fire service insures that all smoke alarms are working, we can all say "It is a far, far better thing that I do..." That tale will be a great story.

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DR. BURTON CLARK EFO, CFO, a Contributing Editor, is the Management Science Program Chair at the National Fire Academy and serves as an operations chief during national disasters and emergencies for the DHS/FEMA. He was a firefighter in Washington, D.C. and Assistant Fire Chief in Laurel, MD. Burton is the host of Leadership on the Line on Radio@Firehouse and has presented Firefighter Safety: Calling the Mayday on Firehouse TrainingLIVE. To read Burton's complete biography and view their archived articles, click here.