Drake Walters knows first-hand why smoke alarms are life-savers

By Gordon Williams

On one level, Drake Walters of Suquamish, Washington is just one of the thousands of individuals across the United States who install smoke alarms as part of the American Red Cross Home Fire Campaign (HFC). Drake is a volunteer in the Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas Chapter of the Red Cross, headquartered in Bremerton, Washington. He has been involved in the Campaign since the Red Cross launched it in 2014 with the goal of cutting home fire deaths by 25 percent.

But Drake brings a professional background to HFC that few volunteers can match. He spent 25 years as a working firefighter, and has seen close-up how smoke alarms can save lives.

Statistics compiled by the National Fire Protection Association make a convincing case that having a working smoke alarm can increase significantly your chances of making it out alive from a home fire. But Drake can go a step beyond that, with eyewitness reports on the value of a smoke alarm should fire sweep through your home.

“When we pull up to a fire, it is calming to hear an alarm ringing,” he says. “We know that people were warned and probably got out safely. When we arrive and hear nothing but silence, we don’t know what we are going to find but we know it is likely the outcome will not be favorable.”

So, Drake and fellow volunteers installed 97 smoke alarms free-of-charge on a recent weekend in Kitsap County homes that lacked an alarm or had an alarm that was not working. That was part of the latest iteration of the Home Fire Campaign — the Sound the Alarm project that ran nationwide in late April and early May.

“The key word here is ‘working,’” Drake says. “A smoke alarm won’t save you if it is too old or if the batteries are worn out or missing.”

Given his professional firefighter background, Drake mostly coordinates the installation effort — finding homes that need alarms, and directing crews to these homes, Still, he estimates that over the years he has personally installed upwards of 300 smoke alarms in Washington homes.

Drake first volunteered at the Red Cross 20 years ago. He had just retired after 25 years with the Bainbridge Island Fire Department. “Given my background with the fire department, I felt the Red Cross was a good fit,” he says.

Drake responded to fires on Bainbridge Island, but his main job was keeping the department’s vehicles and firefighting gear in good working order. Much of his work with the Red Cross has involved the same kind of duties — maintaining vehicles and facilities.

Drake says he helped create the first emergency response vehicle (ERV) for the Red Cross. ERVs are in wide use today, functioning as mobile canteens at disaster scenes. “In the 1980s there was nothing like them in the country,” he says. “We took a Ford Econoline van, added brackets and shelves and filled it with cots and blankets.” 

Scroll down for a look at Red Cross ERV’s through the years.

Working closely with the Red Cross, he also helped to create an emergency communications network on Bainbridge Island. Because it is an island — linked to the Kitsap County mainland by just a single bridge — Bainbridge could become isolated in case of an earthquake. To keep the Red Cross functioning after a quake, Drake helped locate a central facility where relief supplies and communications gear could be stored.

Drake has worked in shelters over the years. But he feels he can be more useful to the Red Cross as part of its Life Safety and Asset Protection (LSAP) service. That function inspects buildings that will be used as shelters in an emergency. “Any building that will be used by the public must be inspected,” Drake says. “We look at things like the number of fire extinguishers and whether there are enough emergency exits.”

Most of the shelters in the Red Cross Northwest Region are opened in churches. But every shelter building, no matter its original function, must be inspected before the Red Cross brings in clients, and is inspected for safety while the structure is in use as a shelter.

A Red Cross volunteer writes the expiration date on a free smoke alarm during Sound the Alarm 2019.

Still top priority for Drake at the Red Cross is putting in as many smoke alarms as possible — installing them himself or coordinating the efforts of a volunteer crew. And while most Red Cross crews are active one or two weekends a year, Drake tries to make the Home Fire Campaign a year-around thing — putting in new alarms and making sure that older alarms are working. “I do smoke alarms on a case-by-case basis, throughout the entire year,” he says.

Then and now: a look at Emergency Response Vehicles (ERV’s) from 1999 to today.

Date: May 1999 Event: Tornadoes Location: Oklahoma city and suburbs Photographer: Hector Emanuel Release info: release A Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicle crosses a landscape of devastation on its way t serve food and water to victims of the May tornadoes. CrossNet # 30685 Original 35mm color negative r16-11a
Date: December 19, 2000 Event: Tornado Location: Tuscaloosa, AL Photographer: Photo: Joe Songer Release info: release Caption: A Red Cross worker serves hot meals and drinks to a Tuscaloosa resident affected by the devastating tornadoes Original: 35mm color negative film r9-f4
October 16, 2018. Panama City, Florida Panama City resident Catherine Nolan was relieved to see a feeding vehicle in her neighborhood not only so she could get a freshly cooked meal for dinner but also find out the location of the nearest Red Cross shelter and escape the heat at night. Photo by Daniel Cima/American Red Cross
October 16, 2018. Panama City, Florida Volunteer driver Steve Patterson embraces a resident of Panama City, Florida, who is still without power and basic utilities nearly a week after the storm devastated her neighborhood. Photo by Daniel Cima/American Red Cross
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