Why smoke alarm installation programs work better with firefighter support
NFPA Journal, September/October 2010
I love the 2010 fire prevention week theme of “Smoke Alarms: A Sound You Can Live With,” because it gives me a chance to toot the horn for smoke alarm installation programs run by fire departments. As a public educator, I am always looking for ways to increase people’s knowledge of smoke alarms. However, I think public educators can be most effective in reducing deaths and injuries in their communities by combining education with installation programs, especially in high-risk neighborhoods.
High-risk neighborhoods are found in cities and rural areas alike, and are characterized by higher rates of fires, as well as injuries and deaths associated with those fires. It isn’t difficult to identify these neighborhoods: lower incomes, lower education rates, or disproportionate numbers of older adults or young children are all factors associated with higher fire risk. In alarm installation programs run by NFPA in high-risk areas, home surveys completed by installers showed the percentage of homes with at least one smoke alarm ranged from 33 percent to 64 percent; a 2008 NFPA survey conducted by Harris Interactive, by comparison, found that 96 percent of all U.S. homes had at least one smoke alarm.
From 2003-2007, NFPA ran programs resulting in the installation of more than 60,000 smoke alarms, and we learned many lessons through the process. For example, smoke alarms should always be installed, not just given away, and programs can be much more effective if firefighters are involved. Mark Jackson, project officer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Smoke Alarm Installation and Fire Safety Education program, which has installed half a million alarms, tells me that it’s much easier to get people to open the door when firefighters participate, since they’re often known in the neighborhood. Installation programs are even more successful when they’re actively supported by fire chiefs, he says.
You also need a local leader to champion your program. This is especially important in areas where the high-risk neighborhood may be particularly insular, as in rural areas or in communities with many new immigrants.
Training is a must. Train your installers on placement of alarms, alarm features such as hush buttons, filling out surveys, and teaching fire escape planning. Tammy Peavey, a fire safety education officer who runs a state-wide alarm installation program for the Mississippi Office of the Fire Marshal, tells me she will be directly training all installers to ensure consistency throughout the program. “You have to make sure firefighters know where alarms are placed,” she says.
Advertise your program through local media, places of worship, schools, and stores. “Publish a phone number people can call for information,” Mark Jackson adds. “If you’re canvassing a neighborhood, deliver a door-to-door flyer a week before you install alarms.” Be flexible about the times you install alarms. Jackson says that finding people home during the day was one of his program’s biggest challenges, which is why it began offering evening and weekend installations.
One of NFPA’s installation programs was in the Navajo Nation that occupies parts of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. Homes are often many miles from each other, and proper installation is critically important. That’s why Dicky Bain, deputy fire chief of Navajo Nation Fire and Rescue and a key leader of the program, recommends checking the work of the installers. “Make sure you have random spot checks of homes where your installers have been to ensure alarms are installed correctly,” says Bain. “Do this early in the program so you can correct any training problems.”
To learn more about installation programs or to obtain NFPA’s training presentations or surveys, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sharon Gamache is NFPA’s senior program manager for high-risk outreach programs