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Fire study reveals alarming results

Operations assistant Jody Fotherby of Penticton Fire Rescue holds a smoke detector which can help save lives by alerting people to a possible fire in a residence.  - Mark Brett/Western News
Operations assistant Jody Fotherby of Penticton Fire Rescue holds a smoke detector which can help save lives by alerting people to a possible fire in a residence.
— image credit: Mark Brett/Western News

Years of reminders of the importance of smoke alarms are still not sinking in, said Penticton fire operations assistant Jody Fotherby.

“When I teach kids in school it is surprising, one of the very first questions I have been asking is how many children and parents have actually practised your plan at home. Meaning your parent pushes the smoke alarm to make sure it is working, roll out of bed, crawl to your own window or door and go to your meeting place. On the average, for a 20-child class, it is three,” said Fotherby. “I’m really surprised at that.”

Despite all of the public education, almost 70 per cent of the houses that caught fire in B.C. in recent years did not have a working smoke alarm. Many of those were low-income homes, rental units, many on aboriginal reserves and other rural locations, according to a study of residential fire reports done by the University of the Fraser Valley.

“It shows in the study that although people have smoke alarms, they are not necessarily maintained. It is one thing to have a smoke alarm installed, it is another thing to test it monthly,” said Fotherby.

According to the report, seniors, disabled people and young children were at greater risk of dying in a house fire. The Penticton Fire Department have conducted neighbourhood visits since 2005 to check on this demographic. Fotherby said the fire department will talk about smoke alarms, check to make sure a resident’s smoke alarm works, that they are not over the 10-year expiry date and go over other possible household hazards. Seniors, Fotherby said, sometimes don’t have anybody to help them check their alarms or even just change the batteries. She welcomes them to call the fire hall.

“We would be more than happy to help them. Several seniors come to the fire hall that have problems with their alarm and we give them a new one, or ask if they need help putting it in, and it is not a problem. We are happy to go into their home and help them. One smoke alarm can save a family’s life,” she said.

Fotherby said studies show that a smoke alarm will go off within 90 seconds of a fire starting.

“Really that doesn’t give you much time to get out of the house. You have normally three minutes to get out of the house. By the time your smoke alarm activates, potentially it could take four to five minutes before your house is burned. Having said that, it is really important to have a working smoke alarm and definitely have a plan to get out,” said Fotherby, who stressed the importance of also practising that plan regularly.

Smoke alarm maker Kidde Canada donated two dozen new smoke alarms to the Penticton Fire Department to hand out to residents during the community checks. The company is donating 5,000 units with a retail value of $75,000 to be distributed to B.C.’s most vulnerable populations this fall. And Black Press, whose publications reach 1.2 million B.C. homes, has pledged a public awareness advertising campaign worth $350,000 to remind people to install or upgrade their smoke alarms. The B.C. government has launched a  campaign to get a working smoke alarm in every home in the province.

Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis, president of the Fire Chiefs Association of B.C., said the study used data from B.C.’s Office of the Fire Commissioner from 2006 to 2011. The study suggests that 69 lives could be saved each year if homes across Canada had working smoke detectors, he said.

“Smoke alarms give you time to escape from the fire — it seems pretty simple, doesn’t it?” Garis told a news conference at the B.C. legislature. “High-risk members of society are most likely to have a fire and least likely to have a working smoke alarm.”

The UFV study extrapolated that 69 deaths across Canada could be prevented each year if all Canadian homes had working smoke alarms. The research also predicts that working smoke alarms could reduce annual fire deaths by as much as 32 per cent.

“This is a very poor report card on the state of functioning smoke alarms in our province and country. As a fire service, we now have the opportunity to work together and make a real difference on this important safety issue. We’ve tackled this before, but this time we’ll be looking for permanent, sustainable solutions,” said Garis, who emphasized that all smoke alarms should be replaced after 10 years, and batteries changed annually.

Further details about the campaign will be publicized in Black Press publications during 2012. More information about the research and the program are available at www.fcabc.ca.

-With files from Tom Fletcher, Black Press

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