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The Baltimore City, MD, Fire Department’s neighborhood smoke alarm canvassing program began passively in the 1970s after the release of America Burning, a landmark document that emphasized, among other things, the importance of public fire safety education and smoke alarms. Initially, firefighters went door to door asking residents whether they had working smoke alarms in their homes. The firefighters did not test or install alarms; they simply tried to raise awareness. There was no organization, no record keeping or coordination of the canvassing process.
In 1982, the City Council passed Bill 82-761, mandating that “every one-, two- or three-family residential dwelling install and maintain at least one smoke detector.” The Baltimore City Fire Department responded by offering smoke alarms for sale at cost, $6.
It was not until 1992 when Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. took command that the fire department started installing free smoke alarms for residents. The alarms were paid for through donations and grants, and the Fire Marshal’s Office held annual fundraisers to generate funds. The first central reporting system was created, with the fire department keeping paper receipts of dwellings where smoke alarms were installed. Records were kept solely to manage inventory and account for the donated alarms.
In the early 2000s, Fire Marshal Theodore Saunders had a computer database created to track the “Home Visits Program.” The database could tell the fire department where it had been, but not where it needed to go. There was no central coordination of coverage, but the raw numbers of home visits were being tracked by the mayor’s new Citi-Stat program. Under Citi-Stat, city agencies meet biweekly with the Mayor’s Office to set goals, provide statistics and discuss ways of improving services. Fire companies were held accountable for a certain number of home visits every two weeks, but given no guidance as to where or how to conduct the inspections.
Smoke alarms in budget
In 2009, Chief James Clack was the first fire chief to fund the purchase of smoke alarms as a line item in the fire department budget. Donations and grants were insufficient to pay for new 10-year lithium battery alarms equipped with a “hush” feature that silences an alarm for three to five minutes if it is accidentally activated when food is being cooked. We believed this feature would limit the number of smoke alarms taken down or from which batteries were removed and not replaced in response to accidental activations. The switch to the longer-lasting batteries was intended to engineer a solution to the number of fire deaths occurring in homes with smoke alarms that had no batteries or dead batteries. In addition to the change in technology, the manner in which home visits were conducted changed. The decision of where canvassing efforts were to occur was taken from individual fire companies and left to the battalion chief to conduct on a regional level.
One big inefficiency discovered in the neighborhood canvassing model was the “entry rate.” The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health conducted a comprehensive study of our smoke alarm program. A finding that was most startling was the high number of dwellings we do not enter to install or test smoke alarms. Someone answered the door at only 33% of the homes we visited, and those who came to the door let us in only 66% of the time. We tried moving the day of the week and time of day for the visits with little to no improvement.
Another challenge was documenting and recording smoke alarm installations. The Hopkins study revealed defects in data collection and storage. Fire companies were misreporting or under-reporting smoke alarm data, but we had no money for a professionally made database. We needed a plan to increase the efficiency of the program while accurately recording its accomplishments.