It took an estimated twenty minutes for the fire, which had been smoldering behind the basement wall, to fill the house with smoke. At least, that’s how fire survivor, Marie Ramos*, recounts the events of that August morning.

 “I started a load of laundry then drove my children to their nearby elementary school. By the time I returned, the entire house was filled with smoke. I remember looking in from outside and thinking, ‘how odd, the electricity must be out.’ The whole situation was surreal.”  

It wasn’t until much later that she realized how fortunate her family was that day. The fire inspector kept asking her if the smoke alarms had sounded, a question to which she persistently answered yes. Finally, she asked him why he kept asking that question.  The inspector pointed up to the smoke alarm and explained that activated smoke alarms were such a nuisance first responders disabled the alarms with their ax.

Hers were all intact.

The noise Ramos had heard was the shrill of the sump pump, a device used to remove any accumulated water collected in a sump basin. When the fire melted the home’s electrical box, the sump pump’s backup system sounded.

It was the only alarm that worked that day.

If the fire had occurred four hours earlier, they would probably all be dead.

Smoke alarms. It’s something we often take for granted, rarely giving any thought to the device which typically blends into a home’s ceiling. Out of sight, out of mind until it’s needed. In the case of fire survivor Ramos, she had failed to check the smoke alarms in the turn of the century home she moved into six weeks earlier. Her focus had been on getting the boxes unpacked, and her family settled before school started.

The home, built in 1905, had smoke alarms of an indiscriminate age. Considered a teardown in the North Shore community outside Chicago, Ill. the property was never meant to be rented out, but the housing crisis of 2008 shut down the plans of investors who had hoped to sell the property for a record price.

Instead, Ramos and her family rented out the home in 2009.

Fire Prevention Week

National Fire Prevention Week is observed annually in the United States (U.S.) and Canada around the week of October 9. Sponsored by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the event originates from the 40th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire, which burned from Sunday, October 8, 1871, to Tuesday, October 10, killed an estimated 300 people and left 100,000 homeless.

The Fire Marshals Association of North America, the oldest membership section of the NFPA, launched a commemorative Fire Protection Day in October 1911 to educate the public about the importance of fire prevention. U.S. President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed the week-long observation in 1925, noting that 15,000 individuals had lost their lives in a fire the previous year.

Today, more than 1.3 million fires were reported by fire departments across the U.S. in 2016 with an estimated 3,390 civilian fatalities. The NFPA reports that while the total number of fires decreased 0.3 percent from 2015, civilian deaths increased 3.4 percent over 2015 deaths, the highest number since 2007. Click here for the full report.

With 80.7 percent of all fire fatalities occurring in the home, defined as one and two family homes plus apartments, fire safety education remains a key strategy to address civilian fire fatalities.

Experts agree that the widespread use of residential smoke alarms has helped save lives over the past 40 years. A working smoke alarm helps give individuals time to leave their homes in the event of the fire. In fact, according to the NFPA, the risk of dying from a fire is cut in half if homes have working smoke alarms.

Fire Survival Preparation

  1. Have working smoke alarms in bedrooms and near kitchens and living rooms; interconnected is best. Remember, it’s important to check batteries regularly. It is recommended that you change the batteries in your alarms when you change your clocks for daylight saving time.
  2. Smoke alarms generally have a 10-year life limit. Most smoke alarms have an end of life signaling to show when it’s time to replace a smoke alarm. The performance of smoke alarms older than ten years may not be reliable.
  3. Test the devices weekly. A unit should immediately be replaced if it is not operating properly.
  4. Close doors behind you as you leave – this may slow the spread of smoke, heat, and fire. Additionally, keep bedroom doors closed at night to mitigate the spread of fire.
  5. Draw a map of your home by using NFPA’s grid, available in English (PDF) or Spanish (PDF), with all members of your household, marking two exits from each room and a path to the outside from each exit.
  6. Practice your home fire drill twice a year. Conduct one at night and one during the day with everyone in your home, and practice using different ways out.
  7. Designate a meeting spot and incorporate into your fire safety plan.
  8. Teach children how to escape on their own in case you can’t help them.
  9. Make sure the number of your home is clearly marked and easy for the fire department to find.
  10. Once outside, stay outside. Never go back inside a burning building.

Finally, if moving into a new home, remember to inspect the home’s existing smoke alarms. Remove and replace if in doubt about the alarm’s age. At a minimum, replace each alarm’s batteries with fresh ones.

* Name changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

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