It’s an early January morning while you’re conducting station duties and an alarm comes in for a person having trouble breathing. Your crew quickly gets on the rig and upon arrival, your crew begins patient care until the ambulance arrives. At that point, care is transferred and the firefighters step back to allow the ambulance crew to take over. While on scene, you realize the smoke alarm in the hallway is open and the battery is missing. The scene is relatively calm and the patient is stable and doing much better. Do you address the situation or should a blind eye be turned because that’s not why we are there?
Fires increase in winter months
First let’s talk some statistics. The U.S. Fire Administration reports that over 900 people die as a result of fire during the winter months, and 67 percent of these fires happen in a residential setting, causing more than $2 billion in property damage. The leading cause of these fires is cooking; however, as we know, it’s not the only reason. There can be electrical problems, heating, candles, and although not fire-related, what about carbon monoxide? The holidays are right around the corner and all these issues will soon come to the forefront. We will discuss these issues in more detail, how you can help, and how it doesn’t always cost your department money; however, your members will need to take the initiative and address any issues that they may identify. It will certainly pay off in the long run.
Remember this, we are there to help whether it’s a medical problem or something else, so addressing an issue is just as important as the medical call we were originally dispatched for. We must always try to help. Maybe all that is needed is a simple battery and you can go ahead and install it or maybe the smoke alarm needs to be replaced all together. In our community in Gates, NY, we have a smoke alarm program that allows us to help in these types of instances. It is free to the public as long as they own a home within our fire district. I know what you’re thinking, “My fire department does not have the funds for this.” That is understandable, but there are resources available to fire departments.
Initiatives can be little to no cost
Have you ever thought of checking into a state grant? In New York, the New York State Office of Fire Chiefs has been able to secure federal grants for smoke alarms and have passed those grants onto local fire departments. It is completely free, and all it takes is some staffing to get out and assist with installs. To get started, check with your state chief’s or fire marshal’s office to ask if they can secure the grant, or to see if they already have. You won’t get anything unless you ask!
From time to time you will go on calls where you identify a problem but will not be able to deal with what you might find once on scene. You should still try and follow up. It will help your neighbors and realistically it is great public relations. If possible during the call, let the resident know you will be in touch in the near future. Always remember that if they don’t want help, you can’t force it. The last thing your fire department wants is an angry citizen.
Not every effort to help will result in added costs to your department. So what can your department do? Create a checklist of items for the homeowner to address. It’s simple and free. You may not use it all the time, but it’s there if you need it. Explain that the checklist is for their use only and it will not be given to a fire marshal. So what should be on the checklist?
Explaining holiday fire hazards
As discussed previously, cooking is the leading cause of home fires. In fact, Thanksgiving Day is the one day when most fires occur each year. Another example is keeping combustibles too close to the stove, which can result in a fire. Pot handles should never hang over the front of the stove because the result could end tragically. Last and most important, unattended cooking is the leading cause of kitchen fires. Pointing out these simple tips could help reduce the risks.
Electrical problems can easily be addressed. Explain how using extensions cords for permanent use can pose an issue and how using a power strip with a breaker is much safer. Major appliances should always be plugged in directly to the wall. You may see outlets being overloaded around the holidays, it may seem normal during that time of year, but some simple tips may help the homeowner make some better choices.
One of the biggest problems we see in the winter is heating-related fires. You may come across people who heat their homes using their stove. This is an extremely dangerous practice. Gas stoves give off carbon monoxide, which causes a whole other problem. Explain this is not the way to heat your home. Heating with a space heater, although widely used, can also be a serious fire hazard. Keeping heaters at least three feet away from any combustible item will help reduce their chance of starting a fire, and although they should be UL-approved and turned off immediately if tipped over, they are still hot and could pose a problem. Urge homeowners to have a yearly inspection of their furnaces as well as their chimneys if they run a fireplace to ensure they run efficiently as well as safely. This is where you can point out how having a carbon monoxide alarm provides huge benefits as well as possible symptoms to look out for should their family become exposed.
Some other general items to discuss could be placement of house numbers. If responders can’t see the house number, it takes longer to get to them. Smoking outside, candle use, storage of gas and chemicals, the list can go on and on. You can make your report as long or short as you wish. I didn’t recreate the wheel here with this list. These are risks we as firefighters are all familiar with, but are the homeowners?
As previously mentioned, you may not use this list often. What you should have, though, is a watchful eye. When on the fireground, we talk about situational awareness. Why not have that same type of awareness to help someone before they experience a crisis. It really doesn’t matter if you’re a firefighter, fire prevention officer, or the boss. We all have a responsibility to be community risk reducers. No matter what position you hold, you are a leader in your community and you should embrace that role and use it to try to help your neighbors. Taking that extra minute while at someone’s home could mean preventing a future tragedy.
The items discussed in this article aren’t really anything new. At least to us they are not, so why not share them with a family that could use your help? What we need to change is our culture and how we address problems that we come across while doing our jobs and realize that prevention is the way of the future. In today’s economic climate, people want to know how their tax dollars are being spent. This is a perfect way to justify another part of your job, build some new relationships and gain neighborhood equity. Always remember that education, prevention and protection are the building blocks to a safer community.
JOSEPH MANUSE has been the career fire prevention officer for the Gates, NY, Fire District since 2008. He has been a volunteer firefighter with the Gates-Chili Fire Department for almost 28 years, holding the ranks of lieutenant, captain and assistant chief. As the fire prevention officer, he is responsible for providing various fire prevention and fire safety lessons through community outreach programs within the Gates-Chili School District, local businesses and senior centers. Manuse regularly conducts fire extinguisher/fire safety programs with many local businesses, assists with fire evacuation drills, and conducts a Junior Fire Academy every summer for middle school students. In addition, Manuse regularly attends training classes at the New York State Fire Academy and the National Fire Academy to maintain his certifications. In addition to his regular job responsibilities, he has obtained certifications as a Building Safety Inspector, Fire Instructor I and Fire Instructor II and is currently enrolled and working toward a fire protection associates degree. Manuse received the 2016 Raymond Emma Fire Educator of the Year Award.