By Gordon Williams, American Red Cross Volunteer
Try as you will, there is no way to make your home 100 percent safe from fire. A shorted wire inside a wall or an overloaded extension cord can overwhelm all your planning and set off a blaze that can be devastating.
Statistics show that an average of 350,000 American homes do catch fire each year. According to figures from the American Red Cross, those fires kill an average of seven people each day, injure another 30 and do $7 billion worth of damage each year. Fire victims are most likely to be very young or very old.
But although you can’t always prevent a fire from starting, you can protect life and property by outfitting your home with smoke alarms that will alert you early enough to get everyone outside to safety. Working smoke alarms can save lives, which is why the Red Cross launched its Home Fire Campaign in 2014 — to reduce home fire deaths by installing alarms in homes that lack them.
The payoff from Home Fire has been impressive. In the years since the program began, Red Cross alarms have saved more than 1,270 lives — people who exited a burning home safely because an alarm alerted them to the danger. In all, the Red Cross has installed 2.3 million alarms in 1 million homes all across the country.
A key element of the Home Fire Campaign is Sound the Alarm — an all-out push every spring to install 50,000 smoke alarms nationwide during a three-week period. Sound the Alarm for 2022 will run from late April into early May. The goal locally will be to place 902 new alarms within the Red Cross Northwest Region, which includes Washington state and Northern Idaho.
Teams of Red Cross workers and volunteers will canvas neighborhoods in search of homes that lack smoke alarms or that have alarms which no longer work. Over those weeks in early May, new alarms will be installed and homeowners will get vital lessons in home fire safety. The installation will be done by Red Cross volunteers, often backed by local firefighters who have donated their time and expertise.
As to just how effective smoke alarms can be in reducing fire deaths, look at what the U.S. Fire Administration — a division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — has to say. In its smoke alarm outreach materials, the Fire Administration says:
- Three out of five home fire deaths result from fires in properties without working smoke alarms.
- More than one-third (38 percent) of home fire deaths result from fires in which no smoke alarms are present.
- The risk of dying in a home fire is cut in half in homes with working smoke alarms.
The message certainly seems clear enough: Learn all you can, from the Red Cross and other sources, on how to reduce the risk of fire in your home. Then provide an extra margin of safety for home and family by adding strategically placed smoke alarms.
The keywords here are “strategically placed smoke alarms” — those placed in the home where they will do the most good. You can count on those Red Cross installation teams to know just where to place the alarms in your home. For the best do-it-yourself advice, listen to what the National Fire Protection Assn (NFPA) has to say. NFPA is a non-profit entity, founded in 1895, that works to reduce death, injury and financial loss due to fire.
“Install smoke alarms,” says the NFPA, “inside each bedroom, outside each sleeping area, and on every level of the home, including the basement. On levels without bedrooms, install alarms in the living room (or den or family room) or near the stairway to the upper level or in both locations.”
The NFPA further advises: ”Smoke alarms installed in the basement should be installed on the ceiling at the bottom of the stairs leading to the next level. Mount smoke alarms high on walls or on ceilings [remember, smoke rises]. Wall-mounted alarms should be installed not more than 12 inches away from the ceiling to the top of the alarm. Smoke alarms should be installed at least 10 feet [three meters] from a cooking appliance to minimize false alarms while cooking.”
There are some “don’ts” to go along with the “dos.” For instance, don’t install alarms near windows, doors or ducts, where drafts could keep them from functioning properly. Don’t paint over a smoke alarm, or cover it with stickers. Finally, don’t let the batteries in the alarm run down. Smoke alarms only save lives when they are in good working order. Check the batteries each time the clocks change on and off of daylight time. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions on when to install new batteries. Many new smoke alarms have 10-year batteries which last for the life of the alarm.