Provo fire dept. aims to put smoke alarms in every rental Unit
Ashley FranscellInvestigators look through four apartments after they were destroyed in a fire on Monday night. Yvette J. Kimber, 45, is being held on one charge of aggravated arson, a first-degree felony, and two charges of manslaughter, a second-degree felony. Photo taken on Tuesday, March 15, 2011 at the Boulders Apartments in Provo.
PROVO -- On a cold night in March, flames charged through the second story of a south Provo apartment complex. Many residents fled the quickly incinerating structure, but the fire -- which investigators say was intentionally set --cut off the escape of Karen Murray and Catherine Crane. The two women died that night, and others were severely injured when they hurled themselves to safety from second story windows.
Jarring as the women's deaths were to the community, the tragedy was compounded by coming only a couple years after two other fire fatalities in Provo. In January of 2009, Karen Jorgenson was unable to escape from her apartment and burned to death. Not even two months after that, yet another apartment fire killed Douglas Erickson.
Provo City Fire Marshal Lynn Schofield said that the city is historically very fire-safe, but that in light of the recent fatalities something needed to change. As a result, the Provo Fire Department is kicking off Fire Prevention Week by trying to get smoke alarms in every rental sleeping area and hallway in the city. Fire Prevention Week runs from Oct. 9 to 15 and is a long-running national event that aims to curtail destructive fires.
According to Schofield, Provo includes hundreds of rental units that house both students and permanent residents. Every bedroom and every hallway in each unit is required to have a functioning smoke alarm.
"We're concerned that that's not the case," he added.
To change that, Schofield said the fire department would be partnering with local colleges and universities to make sure that property owners receive accurate information about smoke alarms. He also said that while authorities in the past have not inspected residential units, the recent fatalities indicate a need for such inspections.
Smoke alarms can mean the difference between life and death, Schofield went on to say. During a fire, smoke and gases can be just as dangerous as flames and can kill a person before firefighters even arrive.
"There's a misconception that we're going to be able to get you out," Schofield said. "The reality is that by the time we get there if you haven't been able to escape, you're going to be in really big trouble."
While each of the fatal fires in Provo have been different, Schofield said that investigators found evidence of two smoke alarms in Erickson's apartment. Unfortunately, neither alarm had batteries, Schofield reported.
Consequently, a video released by the fire department encourages Provo residents to check their alarms every 30 days. Batteries should be replaced "every time you change your clocks," or twice a year, according to the video. And smoke alarms should be completely replaced at least once every 10 years. The video states that it is the responsibility of property owners and managers to ensure that smoke alarms are present and functioning in rental units.
Schofield said that Fire Prevention Week also is a good time for residents to practice fire escape routes. He recommended that families decide on a predetermined meeting place they can go to if a fire breaks out, and that those living in second floor rooms have some way other than jumping to get out.
The Provo Fire Department hopes that deploying smoke alarms puts Provo back on par with other cities in the state. Schofield said Thursday that he couldn't immediately think of any other Utah city that has had such a severe recent problem with fire fatalities.
The Provo city government also has embraced the efforts to improve fire safety. Following a presentation Tuesday evening at the Provo Municipal Council meeting, Mayor John Curtis signed a proclamation officially declaring Oct. 9 the beginning of Fire Prevention Week. The proclamation identifies cooking equipment, heating and electrical equipment and candles as common causes of fires, and supports efforts to increase safety with smoke alarms and escape plans.
Though Fire Prevention Week technically ends on Oct. 15, Schofield added that the effort to put smoke alarms in rental units will be ongoing.
"This is going to take us a while," he said. "There are hundreds and hundreds of apartments in Provo. It's going to be like eating an elephant, one bite at a time."
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