Madison, Wis., has a relatively low fire death rate, typically experiencing about three annual fire fatalities. In 2007, however, five people died in fires.
The final death caught the public’s attention. A University of Wisconsin student died in a home that had six working alarms when he and other students moved in, but only one operable alarm when the fire occurred. Madison Fire Department (MFD) Chief Debra Amesqua and Fire Marshal Ed Ruckriegel subsequently spurred an effort to strengthen Madison’s smoke alarm laws and bring existing housing stock up to more modern code requirements.
Building on Relationships
The MFD’s “new” focus on smoke alarms was, in fact, added emphasis to efforts that the department had been making for years. The concept is simple: Identify high-risk areas, reach out to them, and create partnerships that help make them safer.
Amesqua notes, however, that helping the community with issues beyond fire safety is sometimes necessary to develop positive relationships and trust. Example: Helping a neighborhood clean up debris primarily serves to improve quality of life, with only an ancillary affect on public safety. But connecting community members with the right resources to get the job done means that the fire department has made some friends that it might not ordinarily have.
As part of its emphasis on working smoke alarms, the fire department organized community support for, and was able to pass, the smoke-alarm ordinance. Alarms are now required in each bedroom, each sleeping area, within six feet of each door leading to a bedroom or sleeping area and on each floor of the building. Smoke alarms must be powered by a tamper-resistant 10-year battery or the building’s electrical system and back-up battery.
But how does anyone ensure that will actually happen?
Making It Happen
Even as the campaign was underway to get the smoke-alarm law passed, the MFD was building a program to ensure compliance. Student housing was a particular target due to the large student population in Madison. But single-family homes were also a focus, and enforcing such a law in owner-occupied homes isn’t easy, so the MFD turned to public outreach and education to accomplish their objectives.
By focusing on the media, the department generated 37 separate stories over the next few years on the subject. It combined these aggressive marketing efforts with community visits to educate citizens about the value of working alarms and the new law. Not surprisingly, students weren’t usually the ones who asked for help; it was primarily elderly residents who lived in and owned their own homes.
The MFD also identified that many low-income families with small children didn’t own their homes, so the rental property market had to be reached as well. Fire protection in rental property poses a problem for any jurisdiction. Generally, the landlord is responsible for installing smoke alarms, but it’s up to tenants to maintain them. Instead, tenants often disable working smoke alarms because they don’t know how to control nuisance alarms. Enforcement in any jurisdiction takes time, so a balance between protection and follow-up is a judgment call someone has to make. As a result, MFD crews will often install alarms in rental properties when they’re on scene, just to protect the family.
MFD Community Education Officers made and refined the list of homeowners to focus on, while working with the firefighters’ union to address concerns about high call volumes and workload. They worked out an agreement where on-duty and off-duty firefighters were used to canvas the neighborhoods, get into the homes and physically install smoke alarms where needed. Grants helped fund this specific project, but positive comments from the community have led the MFD to believe that this kind of activity can become a new “normal” for fire department operations.
Sometimes the results of such community outreach programs are expected or desired; sometimes they’re surprising. The MFD expected to improve the number of working smoke alarms. And fire death rates have declined. But the department may never be able to prove in a scientific sense that its efforts were related (demonstrating “cause and effect” in fire prevention is extremely difficult and expensive in a public setting). However, results over a period of time will provide more evidence that they’re on target.
But there was also a surprising outcome of the partnerships the MFD developed: strong support from the community for the fire department. As a result, the MFD is one of few fire departments that added resources during a time when many fire departments around the nation were not only being asked to make huge cuts to their budget and staff, but were (and are) under attack.