By Gordon Williams
The ambitious goal of the Red Cross Sound the Alarm campaign — which runs from April 28 through May 13 — is to install 100,000 smoke alarms nationwide in homes that don’t have them.
Hitting that life-saving target will require the efforts of thousands of volunteers in every corner of the United States. One group of volunteers in Washington’s King County (Seattle) will consist of teenagers who are interested in fire-fighting as a chosen career.
The youth — aged 14 to 20 — are Fire Explorers and part of the Learning for Life career education program that is affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America. Learning for Life helps young men and women prepare for careers in engineering, technology, humanities, and emergency services such as firefighting and emergency medical assistance.
Home base for Zone 3 Fire Explorers is south King County, says Captain Kyle Ohashi of the Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority in SeaTac. Ohashi is the public information officer for the fire authority and an advisor to the Fire Explorers. Four King County fire services sponsor the Zone 3 Explorers — Ohashi’s fire authority, Tukwila Fire Department, Renton Regional Fire Authority, and Maple Valley Fire Dept.
Captain of the Zone 3 Explorers is Ben McQuage, who at 18 is pretty sure he wants a career as a firefighter. “The Fire Explorer program is a great way to become part of the fire service,” he says.
The Fire Explorers meet weekly, rotating among fire stations in each of the four sponsoring services.
Ohashi says youngsters in the Fire Explorer program get plenty of hands-on fire service experience. They are dispatched to multiple-alarm fires. Once on-scene they monitor the well-being of the working firefighters — checking blood pressure and heart rate and keeping them hydrated and nourished. When needed, they also perform tasks such as rolling up the hose and filling breathing apparatus air bottles. As Ben puts it, “Whatever they ask us to do, we do.”
Firefighting is often a family thing — sons following fathers onto the job. That is not the case with Ben. Except for a distant relative in the Frankfurt, Germany fire department, he will be the first firefighter in his family. What made him choose this path? “I want to help people and I did not see a clear pathway to helping people sitting behind a desk,” he says.
One of the things the Fire Explorers are asked to do is assist at community fire safety exercises. That includes playing a vital role in the Red Cross smoke alarm campaign.
The Fire Explorers’ role in distributing smoke alarms is to track down homes that lack alarms and then make the installations. Homes in low-income areas are most likely to lack smoke alarms, so that is where the campaign will be aimed. They knock on doors and we ask if people have a smoke detector. “If they say ‘no,’ we say, ‘would you like one?’” McQuage explains.
The Fire Explorers will be out installing smoke alarms on April 28. A week before, McQuage and his crew will canvass neighborhoods to look for homes that need alarms. Their focus is the massive Bow Lake mobile home park in SeaTac. It is a senior facility with around 500 mobile homes on the grounds.
Mobile Home Communities are a prime Sound the Alarm target for several reasons, says Ohashi. For one thing, mobile homes often lack smoke alarms. For another, the way they are constructed makes them more prone to serious damage from even a small fire. Finally, he says, seniors are at high risk from fires because they tend to be more forgetful, less observant, and less able escape quickly from fires. “All these things make us want to get in smoke alarms,” says Ohashi. “They’re a great way of reducing fire deaths.”
According to the U.S. Fire Administration, a unit of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, fires in the home killed 3,362 in 2015, the last year for which complete figures are available.
Figures from the National Fire Protection Association show you are more than twice as likely to die in a home fire where there is no alarm than a home with a smoke alarm.
These are the precise statistics the American Red Cross Home Fire Campaign was created to combat. Launched in 2014, the goal is to cut home fire deaths and injuries by 25%. This spring, during the event-driven side of the campaign, called Sound the Alarm, Red Cross volunteers will be out in mass, installing 100,000 nationwide and 6,000 in our Northwest Region.
The Zone 3 Fire Explorers will play a meaningful role in reaching that goal.