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A friend’s near miss, and a viral challenge to improve smoke-alarm awareness
NFPA Journal, January/February 2013
A friend of mine, Brook, recently told me about a serious fire that occurred at her home. It took place late at night and originated in the kitchen. Brook and her three boys, ages 1, 6, and 8, along with her mother, were in the home. Her husband was traveling for work.
Brook’s oldest son was awoken by the smell of smoke, and he immediately went and woke his mother. She told him to grab the baby and get out of the house and that they would all meet at a neighbor’s home. She awoke her 6-year-old, then got her mother out of the house.
I’ve worked at NFPA for more than 10 years and have heard many stories of home fires, but I’ve never personally known anyone who’d experienced one — until now. I get an ache in the pit of my stomach when I think of how this story could have ended differently if Brook’s son had not acted fast and known what to do. He is a hero; he saved his family.
When Brook told me the story, my first question was whether the smoke alarms in the home had sounded. Her answer was “no.” She and her husband knew how important smoke alarms are; they had alarms located in all the necessary places throughout the home, and they made a point of checking the batteries regularly. But one important thing that they did not know was that smoke alarms need to be replaced after 10 years. Like any electronic device, a smoke alarm becomes less reliable over time, making it more likely that it won’t respond in a fire.
After hearing this story, I started thinking about all the people who don’t know that smoke alarms have lifespans and need to be replaced. I polled 10 of my friends — nothing scientific, just a message on Facebook — by asking if they knew how long smoke alarms last and if they knew how old theirs were. Their answers were all over the map, and only one person could answer those questions correctly.
As fire safety educators, we know that knowledge can be the difference between life and death. Home fire sprinklers, working smoke alarms, and a detailed home fire escape plan are crucial. Are people testing their alarms monthly? Do they know the importance of interconnected smoke alarms in the home? Do they have both ionization and photoelectric-type smoke alarms? Are they replacing smoke alarms after 10 years?
Spreading the word and reaching as many people as possible is important, and the fire service knows better than anyone that the best way to educate and change behavior is at the grass-roots level.
With that in mind, I have a challenge for you that starts with three questions:
• Do you test your smoke alarms once a month?
• How old are your smoke alarms?
• Do you know that smoke alarms need to be replaced every 10 years?
If everyone who reads this asks at least 10 of their friends and family these questions, and they in turn ask 10 people they know, we can get this important fire safety message out. Let’s go viral.
For more information on smoke alarms and home safety, visit nfpa.org/smokealarms. For a game that helps children recognize the sound of smoke alarms, visit nfpa.org/sparky and click on “Match Game.”
Amy Lebeau is project manager for Public Education at NFPA.