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Seniors at Risk: A Personal Story

The wires crisscrossing under the invalid lady's bed grew hot over time. The 84-year-old widow had various newspapers, religious tracts, pictures and magazines under and by her bed on the floor. Her adult son was sleeping in the next bedroom. Sometime in the night, the old wires sparked, the paper ignited and the fire began. What was a small fire under the lady's bed became a raging inferno as it consumed the walls, the bed, the person in it and, ultimately, the entire wooden structure tinderbox house.

The adult son escaped through a window and could hear his mother calling for help at one point, but he could not get to her due to the intense heat. TV news coverage of the fatality continued all the following day on the local stations.

This was April 1968, and the dear, elderly white-haired lady was my grandmother. The house was an old, fairly rundown two-story in the heart of Nashville, TN. My grandmother did not have to die in such a horrendous manner.

Flash forward to 2007. Just recently in our large fire district, unfortunately this same scenario was repeated. An elderly lady could not get out of her apartment in time and she perished in a fire that also destroyed eight other connected apartments. Far too many of the fatalities in our district of 600,000 people have been senior citizens! Why haven't we come any further than this in 40 years? The answer is, we have.

Home fire fatalities have steadily dropped since the 1960s. This is no doubt due to better communication concerning fire education in most communities. It is also greatly due to a little device known as a smoke alarm. They are cheap to buy, easy to maintain and have saved innumerable lives. We can now say that most homes in the U.S. have one or more smoke alarms - but are they "working devices" or are they hanging silently on an elderly person's ceiling, the battery having died years ago?

In addition to early-warning device problems with the elderly, the question needs to be asked: Have these older people been made aware through education that if they are between 65 and 74, they are nearly twice as likely to die in a home fire than the rest of the population? If they are even older, between 75 and 84, this statistic jumps to nearly four times as likely to die in a fire. For those who live to the venerable age of 85 or older, the risk is five times higher. Has the average senior citizen been made aware of the high risk by the media, a local senior group or by the local fire department?

By a good, ongoing public education effort aimed at seniors, our local fire services can make a big difference in the senior fire fatalities in our country. A smoke detector program that features free installation and maintenance through the fire department for everyone 60 or older should be a service your department offers. Disabled folks with mobility problems of any age should also be included in your program. Battery replacement can be an ongoing portion of this program. Many large corporations and big-box stores are willing to contribute either money for detectors and batteries or the items themselves.

Messages the fire service can convey to our nation's seniors should be to use smoking materials safely (hopefully, grandma doesn't allow grandpa to smoke anymore!), make a fire escape plan, and make sure your smoke alarm is in place and working!

If seniors are targeted in your area, addressed with a solid fire-safety message and helped with their early-warning devices, we can go a long way toward ensuring that 40 years from now, our fire department has, through our direct actions, saved the life of someone's beloved grandmother or grandfather. And by the way, the next time you install a smoke detector for an elderly person, please remember Grandma Sullivan, 1968, Nashville, TN.

JOJY SMITH is fire education coordinator for the Contra Costa County, CA, Fire Protection District. She is a 26-year member of the fire service and has performed and now coordinates all areas of public fire-safety education in this large fire district in Northern California. Smith developed the Juvenile Firesetter Intervention Program now used by the district and has served as an instructor on this subject. She has also advised national media companies on fire-safety training DVDs/videos.