Photo by Andy Clayton-King for the American Red Cross.

By Gordon Williams 

Home fires claimed the lives of 1,576 Americans in the first eight months of 2021. That total might have been 1,577 if it were not for smoke alarms supplied by the Red Cross and installed by members of the Aberdeen WA fire department. 

Instead of another name being added to the home fire death toll, the Red Cross can point to 916 lives saved since its Home Fire Campaign was launched in 2014. The aIm of Home Fire is to reduce deaths and injuries due to home fires by installing smoke detectors in dwellings that lack a working alarm.  

Since the campaign began, 2.2 million smoke alarms have been installed in homes across the U.S., and two of them were in the Aberdeen home of David James. It was one of those alarms that alerted James when fire broke out in his home early in the morning of August 12, 2021. 

Here is the story as reported by the city of Aberdeen Fire Department: 

“During the early morning hours of August 12, 2021, Mr. David James called the Aberdeen Fire Department to report he had just put out a fire in his bedroom. Mr. James reported that at 3:30 a.m. the smoke alarm in his bedroom sounded and he awoke to find a clip-on fan was on fire. The fan had melted and fallen onto the carpet, causing five small fires on the carpet. 

“Mr. James stated that he was heavily sedated by his medication and would not have awakened without the smoke alarm. He feels like he would have died if the Aberdeen Fire Department had not placed a smoke alarm in his bedroom. 

“Mr. James said he was able to extinguish the fire with a fire extinguisher. He decided not to call for the fire department because he was able to extinguish the fire on his own. He was very grateful and wanted to thank the Aberdeen Fire Department for installing the smoke alarm.” 

So that’s the story. What could have been a catastrophic, life-threatening fire turned into something James could deal with using just a home fire extinguisher. Instead of becoming the year’s 1,577th fire death, James became the 916th “save” of the Red Cross Home Fire campaign. 

Red Cross volunteer Mike Michener of Tacoma — who supervised the alarm installation in James’ home — isn’t sure just how many alarms he has put into Western Washington homes, but reckons the number is “80 or more.” Michener has served with the Red Cross for four years and currently sits on the board of the Red Cross South Puget Sound and Olympics chapter, based in Tacoma. 

He is also a disaster responder for the Red Cross. On the day we talked, Michener was responding to a major apartment house fire that required Red Cross assistance. More to the point as far as this story is concerned, Michener is the Home Fire Campaign lead in Aberdeen. Nor is this the first time an alarm which Michener helped put into a home saved a life. “We installed an alarm in one home and that very night they had a kitchen fire,” he says. “It was the alarm that detected the smoke and alerted the family.” 

That statistic of 1,576 home fire deaths comes from the U.S. Fire Administration — a division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency — which describes itself as “working for a fire-safe America.” Statistics compiled by the USFA show just how catastrophic home fires can be: 

  • An average 358,500 American homes experience a structural fire each year. 
  • More than 3,000 Americans die in fires each year — the vast majority in home fires. 
  • It can take just 30 seconds for a small fire to turn into a major blaze. 

So Red Cross volunteers such as Michener track down homes that lack working smoke alarms. They then supply alarms for local firefighters to install. The Red Cross teams also teach fire safety lessons to home dwellers. 

The Aberdeen Fire Department has partnered with the Red Cross since the start of 2021. Aberdeen firefighters put Michener’s alarms into the James house on February 8. In reporting the fire — and the save — to the Red Cross, Monica Myers of the Aberdeen Fire Department had this to say: “We thought we would pass this on as it is important for you to know how much we appreciate our partnership with you. Smoke alarms do save lives.” 

Do you need a smoke alarm or want to learn how to make your home safer? CLICK HERE To make an appointment.

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