Preventing Harm, One Home at a Time

Nov. 1, 2007

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 see the "fire rescue service world," working for several different communities. That's right, I am the guy who's teased about not being able to keep a job; what a great set of experiences for me and my family.

In my absence, so much in DC has changed and so much has stayed the same. When I left our Nation's Capital, we had the Washington Senators Major League Baseball Club; now it is the Nationals. The fire department operated with a three-platoon system; now it has four shifts. Engine 10 was the busiest in the city, and it still is; now even more so. We saw a considerable number of fire deaths, and, unfortunately, we still suffer with losing 10 to 15 civilians every year to fire. There has to be a way to change this grim statistic and lower or eliminate our citizens and visitors from needlessly dying in their homes. This column will discuss an initiative that was launched in July 2007 in the Deanwood section of our city. The program is titled "SAVU," which is pronounced Save You and stands for Smoke Alarm Verification and Utilization, and will go a long way to curbing the fire deaths that we respond to each year. Perhaps this program can be implemented in your community and reduce harm, human suffering and loss of life.

Tragedy Strikes

Just a few days after returning to work at DCFD, we responded to a house fire on Minnesota Avenue, Southeast. The call came into our Office of Unified Communications at about 2 A.M., but the caller provided the wrong address. In fact, several more folks called in this raging blaze, giving the incorrect address several more times. As luck would have it, DCFD Engine 15's route of travel to the dispatched address went directly in front of the rowhouse that was burning. Thank goodness the response time was just under six minutes that night because the customers in that house would need all of the help that we could provide to avoid a very tragic outcome.

Upon arrival, Engine 15 provided a brief initial report that included the fact that people were trapped and requested a "working fire" assignment (which adds a sixth four-member engine, a third five-member ladder, another two-person command team and support units such as the air unit, fire investigations and the shift commander) to the alarm. As Engine 15 made the staircase with a 1½-inch handline to attack the fire and begin a primary search, one of the truck companies stood a portable ladder to help some of the family members down from a second-floor bedroom.

Several folks were assisted to the safety of their front yard and then into a waiting ambulance. As emergency medical care was being provided, it was learned that the 5-year-old daughter was not so fortunate and remained in her bedroom. The "interior attack group," led by Engine 15, discovered the little girl on the second floor, severely burned and lifeless, just minutes into this firefight. Tragically, the little girl would not survive this fire that consumed the top floor of her home.

It is difficult for firefighters to deal with any civilian fire deaths; however, it is even more disheartening to realize that the person who didn't make it was an innocent child. That being the case and an overwhelming need to do something about this situation, the concept of "SAVU" was developed and presented to the devastated neighborhood at a Sunday-afternoon press conference that included Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Council Chair Vincent Gray. The press conference was held on the front steps of the burned-out home where the precious little girl lost her life. It was well attended by the community and the media.

"SAVU" Program Is Born

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.

Show Day

When Burt agreed to be a partner, helping to kick off the "SAVU" program and with the financial support issues behind us, I started to breathe a little easier. I now believed that "SAVU" was going to happen and be successful. The morning was full of activity as the final parts of the plan were put into motion. I arrived at the appointed location at 7 o'clock only to find that most of the "heavy lifting" was completed. Our command post vehicle was the center of attention, with many folks assembled around to obtain supplies and orders for the day. In front of the command post were a podium and stage for a 10 A.M. press conference to kick off the event. The smell of pork and chicken barbeque filled the air. I was grateful to learn later that the IAP included a "world class" lunch prepared by DCFD's Barbeque Team (that is correct; we have a group of firefighters who tour this nation and compete for various honors for their cookery).

Several other elements were taking place while I marveled at the efficiency and effectiveness of the command team and various support players. Among the activities were sign-in and supporting paperwork to let the volunteers help and ride out with their prospective companies. Next, the unit leaders (officers and drivers) were in training and operations briefings. For about 30 minutes, company officers and drivers were updated on the details of the "SAVU" program and given their street assignments. It was soon after that the volunteers were paired with their apparatus for the final unit-level briefing.

At the stroke of 10 o'clock, the press conference started. In all there was our Mayor, Council Chair and the Ward's Council Member in attendance. They spoke to all of Washington's media agencies about just how critical this program is and that everyone must have a properly installed smoke alarm. Another unexpected highlight was the fact that all three elected officials agreed to provide $300,000 of support to operate the "SAVU" program for the next year. Among the improvements that we hope to reach is adding a part-time position to manage this high-profile, community-friendly program.

Along with our Governing Body, we had several community leaders to include the parents of the 5-year-old girl who lost her life. The girl's mother gave a powerful speech. The final speaker of the day was Dr. Clark. He gave a resounding speech that sounded more like a testimonial to the department for being committed to this community outreach. The history lesson about the smoke alarm promotional program for the 1970s and a bit of insight about even the department's reluctance to trust the devices 30 plus years ago was thought-provoking. Then, to have Burt lead by example and climb aboard Engine 17 to work as a smoke-alarm installer for the day was nothing short of an exclamation mark for this program kickoff.

A Peek Into The Future

As 3 P.M. approached, we had reached every one of our objectives. More than 200 alarms were installed (the units were either smoke and CO devices or the newest technology — a talking detector that provides detailed instructions using the child's Mom or Dad's voice). Over 600 homes had to be reached. Although most of the customers were not at home, we left a calling card that explained the program and a number to call to have a device installed or help to repair an existing one. The number-one goal was to operate in such a way that no member or volunteer would be hurt, so another goal was reached with no injuries.

Next, we wanted to make sure that the entire event was well documented to include media coverage at the opening and to record all of the residences that were checked; with a lot of help from our IT staff, this was accomplished. Finally, all workers were to be fed and thanked for the extra effort, and that was handled by Assistant Fire Chief of Planning & Preparedness Brian Lee.

The decision was made at the end of the day (and supported by our labor association, IAFF Local 36, fire and EMS administration, community leaders and the elected officials) that a Community Smoke Alarm Blitz would be held every third Saturday of the month in a neighborhood that experienced significant fire-loss history. The second blitz is being planned, and other developments are in process. The hope is that 10 more companies will go out and install 10 units each in their first-due areas. When we add this component to the "SAVU" program on smoke-alarm blitz day, we will install another 100 detectors. Finally, we have added a web link and a "hotline" telephone number for families to call to get an alarm installed on demand for families that are not available on Saturdays. We will be watching civilian fire-death statistics closely to determine the effectiveness of this program, making the needed changes to make it successful. I am sure that it will make a difference in "Preventing Harm in Our Community."

If you would like more information, please e-mail Battalion Fire Chief Kenneth Crosswhite at [email protected] or call us at 202-673-3320. We also welcome volunteers to help us install smoke alarms. If you are near DC on the third Saturday of any month, call us to ride along and see this program for yourself (all you have to do is sign a waiver). Until next time, be safe out there!

DENNIS L. RUBIN, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is chief of the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. Previously, Rubin was chief of the Atlanta, GA, Fire and Rescue Department. He holds a bachelor of science degree in fire administration from the University of Maryland and an associate in applied science degree in fire science management from Northern Virginia Community College, and is enrolled in the Fire and Emergency Management Administration program at the graduate school of Oklahoma State University. Rubin is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officers Program, is a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) and has obtained the Chief Fire Officer Designation (CFOD) from by the International Association of Fire Chiefs. He is an adjunct faculty member of the National Fire Academy author of the book Rube's Rules for Survival.

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