Each year, hundreds die, thousands are injured, and millions of dollars in property damage is done by fires that happen in a wide variety of structures. Some simple preventative measures could have prevented most of these blazes. Knowing those preventative measures and acting on them is the essence of National Fire Prevention Week.
In 1925, President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed Fire Prevention Week a national observance, making it the longest-running public health observance in our country. Fire Prevention Week is observed each year during the week of October 9th in commemoration of the Great Chicago Fire, which began on October 8, 1871, and caused devastating damage. This horrific conflagration killed more than 250 people, left 100,000 homeless, destroyed more than 17,400 structures, and burned more than 2,000 acres of land.
Over the years, Fire Prevention Week has been synonymous with firefighters visiting schools, showing kids around the fire trucks, dressing up in their gear, and teaching children the importance of smoke alarms, stop drop and roll and calling 911. Every year, the National Fire Protection Administration released a theme targeting a specific area of fire prevention with this year’s theme being “Serve Up Fire Safety in the Kitchen.”
While fire departments across our area and the country will be celebrating Fire Prevention Week with a variety of different events and activities, the Williamsport Bureau of Fire is using Fire Prevention Week to educate its citizens on a variety of upcoming initiatives to keep city residents safe.
This year’s Fire Prevention Week is coinciding with the kick-off of the Williamsport Bureau of Fire’s Williamsport S.A.F.E. (Smoke Alarms for Everyone) Campaign. The Williamsport S.A.F.E. Campaign is a multi-year effort to ensure every owner-occupied home in Williamsport has working smoke alarms.
To accomplish this, city firefighters will be going door-to-door across the city to offer free smoke alarm checks and installations.
“The most difficult event for any firefighter is having a fatal fire that we know could have been prevented by a working smoke alarm,” Mark Killian, Chief of the Williamsport Bureau of Fire, told Webb Weekly. “We are fortunate to be the recipient of a $50,000 competitive grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to kick-off our Williamsport S.A.F.E Campaign and facilitate home fire safety visits and smoke alarm installations over the next year in our city’s most at-risk neighborhoods.”
Aside from just smoke alarm checks and installations, the Bureau of Fire will be providing home safety inspections and safety information relative to the demographics of people living in the home.
“Hands down, ensuring every home has working smoke alarms is top priority, but it’s important for us to take an approach focused on overall community risk reduction,” Killian said
The Williamsport Bureau of Fire’s Community Risk Reduction efforts utilizes local data to identify community risks and prioritize efforts to reduce their occurrence and impact. Utilizing both national and local data, fire departments can create programs that focus on specific risks in their communities and aggressively address them. Two such examples in the city are cooking fires and fall victims.
It may sound odd for a fire department to be addressing fall prevention. Still, the Williamsport Bureau of Fire, along with other local departments, respond to hundreds of calls per year where people have fallen and need help getting up. A call that fire departments refer to as “lifting assistance.” While these calls may seem minor in nature, they may be the result of a correctable issue in someone’s home.
“Fire and EMS departments in our area have seen a significant increase in the amount of elderly fall victim calls we respond to, with many of these individuals simply needing help getting off of the floor,” Killian declared. “By educating our residents, or performing a home safety inspection, we may be able to identify items such as missing or inadequate handrails, loose rugs, electrical cords, or clutter that may be present. While it may sound surprising, our firefighters identifying and correcting some of these simple issues may prevent an elderly occupant from falling, and may actually save their life.”
While out of the ordinary topics such as fall prevention are being addressed, the Bureau of Fire still spends the majority of its prevention and education efforts on more traditional fire safety topics. Cooking fires continue to be the leading cause of home fires nationwide, and the Williamsport area is no different.
Killian said, “Approximately 60 percent of home fires within the city were caused by unattended, or improper cooking over the last five years, and within certain areas of the city, cooking accounted for nearly 85 percent of fire incidents. Obviously, it’s important for us to educate all of our citizens on safe cooking. Still, with this specific data, we’re able to focus our education efforts harder in these neighborhoods than we would otherwise.”
What may be surprising to many people is that the number of fire fatalities across the country has risen approximately 20 percent over the last ten years. A number that Chief Killian attributes to a variety of factors.
“First, the materials we furnish our homes with are synthetic and burn much faster; 40 years ago, you had about 17 minutes to escape a fire, in 2020 you have 2-3 minutes. Second, fires are something that happens to someone else. As the number of fires nationwide has decreased, the complacency of our population has increased. We all must continue to educate ourselves.”
When asked what his most important fire safety message would be, Killian didn’t hesitate. “Without a doubt, you must have working smoke alarms. Put them in every bedroom, outside of your sleeping areas, and on every level of your home. Check them monthly, change the batteries every six months, or, better yet, install ten-year alarms that don’t require battery changes. If you or a family member needs a smoke alarm, don’t hesitate to call us, we’ll come to your home and install one for you if you live in the city, and if you’re outside of the city, we’ll put you in contact with someone who will.”
He added, “The mission of our department is to protect the life and property of the people who live in, work in, and visit our city, and we are proud to add value by proactively reducing risk to our community.”