Smoke Detector, Safety Programs Pay Off In Baltimore

Baltimore, like most Northeast cities, has suffered large numbers of fire fatalities throughout its history. Record keeping of fatality statistics formally began in the city in 1938. In that year, Baltimore sustained 24 fire-related deaths. Although the numbers have fluctuated since then, the number of fatalities has never been lower than the 24 registered in 1938 that is, not until 1996, when the year ended with 22 fire deaths. A lot of the credit is being given to aggressive public awareness campaigns conducted by the Balti-more City Fire Department.

Photo courtesy of Baltimore City FD
At a smoke detector campaign in one of Baltimore's shopping malls, the fire department and WMAR-TV promoted the importance of the devices.

Fire safety education has been a priority for Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. since his appointment as chief in 1992. The department's free smoke detector program serves as an example. Begun in 1994, after a fire on Hollins Street claimed the lives of nine people, the program has provided over 35,000 smoke detectors to needy residents.

WMAR-TV has been a major sponsor, promoting the program and challenging others in the business community to also become involved. The effort has attracted corporate sponsorship from Radio Shack (The Tandy Corp.), Home Depot and Hechingers. Partnerships with other organizations have also helped. The Maryland State Health Department, for example, through a grant provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, has partnered with the fire department by hiring outreach workers to canvass communities and survey residents about fire safety. In homes where detectors are absent the outreach workers provide referrals to the fire department so that installations can be made. Similarly, interviewers from the city Heath Department's Healthy Start pre-natal-care program for teenage and young adult mothers, also provide referrals. In all cases, the smoke detectors are installed by firefighters working in neighborhood fire stations.

Williams credits the department's rank-and-file members. "From schools to community groups to houses of worship, we have been actively involved in neighborhoods, getting information out about fire safety. I am very proud of the job firefighters have done." Many community groups and individuals have remarked about the obvious commitment of the fire department to make a difference.

Photo courtesy of Baltimore City FD
A "tough love" approach was used for the city's latest fire safety campaign. Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr., center, and other personnel issue the warning on 10 billboards.

Another outcome of the efforts has been a dramatic reduction in the dollar amount of property losses from fires. In 1996, Baltimore registered a 33% drop when total losses were assessed at $21,618,285. Again, the fire department is pointing to the emphasis on fire prevention as a major cause for the reduction.

Over the last three years, inspectors from the Fire Prevention Bureau have escalated the number of fire inspections conducted. The 69,764 inspections in the 1994-1996 period represented a 10% increase over the previous three years. The bureau has also intensified efforts to provide educational programs to businesses, schools and other points of contact. In the 1994-1996 period, over 40,000 people were also provided with public education programs by bureau members, a 15% increase over 1991-1993.

The department's high-profile annual activities such as October's "Fire Expo" in Baltimore's Patterson Park and September's "Stop, Drop, and Roll Picnic" at the Baltimore Zoo have helped to focus attention to the fire problem in the city as well.

Fire safety initiatives have paid off. Recently, another campaign was initiated to simplify the request for smoke detectors via use of a telephone hotline (396-SAVE). The campaign was promoted on billboards placed around the city.

Hector L. Torres is a battalion chief and public information officer in the Baltimore City Fire Department.