For fire suppression, the minimum level of equipment needed is a fire engine. Without something to pump water, you basically don’t have a fire department. But what’s the equivalent in fire prevention? Looked at another way, if you were going to fund only one thing for fire prevention, what would it be?
There’s a case to be made for smoke-alarm installation and inspection and associated fire safety education programs. Here’s why.
Smoke alarms have an immediate impact on life safety. Other prevention programs, while extremely valuable in the long term, are more difficult to construct and take longer to have an impact. For example, it takes years to build a fire investigation program, and the impact of determining fire causes and dissuading arson takes years to produce measurable results. You don’t start that kind of effort with a bake sale and volunteers.
Code enforcement programs will produce measurable results sooner rather than later, but doing it for a short time—or perhaps stopping it and starting it again—creates administrative headaches and lays the groundwork for liability. Missed hazards, or worse yet, hazards identified but not corrected, are problems some attorneys would love to find for a victim of a commercial fire.
On the other hand, a smoke-alarm inspection/installation program that combines elements of public education can be done fairly inexpensively and produce short-term results, even if it’s only done for a short time.
We know from global studies that similar programs in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand are producing measurable reductions in fire deaths. We’re also collecting a body of evidence that programs of this type are working in the United States, too.
In Georgia, the Smoke Alarm Installation and Fire Safety Education (SAIFE) Program is producing measurable results (for more information, see www.cdc.gov/injury/pdfs/GADPH_SuccessStory-a.pdf). The SAIFE Program counts “lives saved” as those people who escaped a residential fire when a smoke alarm installed by the program alerted them. In 7 years, the program has contributed to saving more than 150 lives. As of March 2009, the local program in Moultrie, Ga., counted 20 fires in homes where smoke alarms had been checked/installed—and 56 lives potentially saved as a result. These are impressive results.
A Priceless Resource
Combining fire department resources with other partners seems to be the most cost-effective way to get a smoke-alarm program going. The fire service gets the added benefit of developing relationships with other agencies and citizens (taxpayers) who will see the immediate benefit of their tax dollars at work.
But there’s a catch. To develop and manage these programs takes someone with knowledge and skill developed over a long period. You don’t get that with a bake sale either. You may have to find it outside the department.
It takes someone who understands marketing, coalition-building and integrated risk management. It also takes someone who can properly identify which smoke alarm to use, because professionals continue to debate what type of smoke alarm is best. There’s considerable controversy about ionization vs. photo-electric alarms and lithium vs. alkaline batteries. I recently learned that a “long-life” battery is lithium and may last up to 10 years, while “long-lasting” batteries are alkaline and last about 1 year, requiring greater maintenance over time.
And what about alarms being disabled? If we install alarms with “hush” features, we must also educate our citizens about using them to temporarily silence alarms that have been activated by things like cooking smoke or steam—instead of disabling the alarm.
Smoke-alarm programs are the minimum level of fire prevention—they can be done quickly and inexpensively, and they can produce measurable results in the short term. But it still takes expertise to pull it off.
Note: Imagining the “one thing” we should do in fire prevention is, of course, only an exercise. No matter how effective, smoke alarm programs shouldn’t be the only thing we try to do, and they shouldn’t be used as an excuse to shortchange other long-term fire mitigation tools, such as fire sprinklers.