Preventing Harm, One Home at a Time

After a long absence (about 28 years' worth), it has been great to return to Washington, DC and once again put on a DC firefighter's uniform. After I completed six years of service at Engine 10 in the 1970s, I had a wonderful opportunity to get out and...


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The plan was simple and potentially very effective, but it would take a lot of hard work to implement. The written goal of the plan is simply to prevent harm in our community. Knowing that about half of the homes in our city don't have a properly installed and maintained smoke alarm, DCFD has agreed to take on this huge challenge. The functional elements of the program are to change the direction of the community smoke detector efforts from a smoke detector "give-away" to knocking on doors and installing and repairing existing devices, a remarkable and significant change of direction.

The next several months were spent resolving the many details (as Assistant Fire Chief of Services Tom Herlihy always points out, "the devil is in the details," and that was a fact for this program). The General Council had to get approved a standard release form to let our members go into homes and install the devices. Next, we resolved the operational components from developing installation kits to providing personnel to do the work. The Information Technology folks helped by taking a section of the city and dividing it into six segments in residential neighborhoods. Each section would have about 100 addresses to be visited on our "Smoke Alarm Blitz" day. The idea was that an operations company would be assigned to each of these areas. The company would be split into two units. Four community volunteers would be added to knock on the 100 or more doors on "blitz" day. Assistant Fire Chief of Operations Larry Schultz made sure that came together flawlessly.

Next, we had to fund this mission-critical event, which was not in our budget. This would be the part that would take some creativity and hard work. Several old friends once again came to the rescue. The necessary money was donated by a very supportive business and several other great companies help us with the smoke/carbon monoxide alarms. As the clock and calendar seemed to work against us, the required resources came together just in time to implement our "SAVU" program with only a few days to spare. It seemed like only the spray "test smoke" was going to elude us on show day, but lo and behold, with the help of overnight drop shipment, the cans were present and accounted for to test the newly installed devices.

Perhaps the most impressive component of the planning was the development of a Type 4 incident action plan (IAP). This plan was six pages long and included every detail, from the operational period goals and objectives to safety to logistical support to assigned radio frequencies. I must commend Battalion Fire Chief William Flint and of his companies that day for far exceeding my expectations. July 21, 2007 will be remembered for the kickoff of this successful program.

An Old Friend Returns

As we were planning to start this major initiative, I happened to see a longtime friend and former member of our department, Dr. Burton Clark, at his office at the National Fire Academy, where he is chair of the Executive Fire Officer Program. I remembered that Dr. Clark (then, as he would remind me, Private Clark of Engine Company 24) was responsible for developing our first smoke alarm program. Burt was then and is now on the leading edge of our industry and always "out in front." So, remembering that he got DCFD originally started on this journey, I asked him to assist us by saying a few words about the agency's history and commitment to preventing harm in the District of Columbia. Without hesitation, Burt agreed to help us without condition. I asked if he needed to check his very busy schedule, and he assured me that he would clear it if necessary. No doubt about it, Dr. Clark was and is committed to this program and to our department.

As all good leaders do, Burt asked what my expectations of him would be that day and how he could help. I was hoping that he would make the trip to Northeast Washington that day and reflect on our past. I was sure that if the members and our elected officials were to hear how we got started so long ago, there would be even a stronger commitment to success.

Dr. Clark once again "raised the bar" by pointing out that just saying a few words were not enough, he was staying that day to help us by installing the devices. "Private" Clark was assigned to work with Engine 17 ("The Protectors of the Holy Land") for that event.

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