Girl's death by fire spurs intensive prevention Volunteer group teaches safety to children

November 12, 1993|By Roger Twigg | Roger Twigg,Staff Writer

On a wall in the main hallway at Park Heights Elementary School in Northwest Baltimore, a plaque commemorates Jaimee Perry, a former student who was 7 when she died in a house fire on Nov. 2, 1988.

The wooden plaque, with an etching of Jaimee, was placed there by the Vulcan Blazers, a group that represents black Baltimore firefighters, to remind other children of the terrible loss that can result from fires.

Statistics show 54 percent of those killed in Baltimore fires are children and 58 percent of fatal fires here are caused by youngsters.

To erase those statistics, Jaimee's father, James Perry, and Fire Lt. Henry C. Burris founded FIRES Inc., an acronym for Fire Information Responsibility Education and Safety, in 1990. FIRES provides educational programs on fire safety and prevention.

"It's my own therapy," says Mr. Perry, 49. "I know that she is dead but I want to provide a living memory . . . to do something in her name. Jaimee was very popular at school. A lot of children had a terrible time dealing with her death."

He and Lieutenant Burris, 56, persuaded school officials to include FIRES' program on fire safety in the curriculum this semester in grades kindergarten through fifth, thereby reaching some 125,000 students.

In 1991, FIRES arranged through TriData, a fire prevention research group, the distribution of 1,000 free smoke detectors to residents of the Rosemont area, where statistics showed several fatal fires.

Lieutenant Burris says there were seven fire fatalities in that West Baltimore community in 1990 and only one since the smoke detectors were distributed. That lone fire death was the result of an arson, he says.

Each week, he and Mr. Perry spend hours of their own time distributing fliers and visiting neighborhood groups and schools to discuss fire safety and prevention.

Lieutenant Burris says most people know little about fire safety or what to do in the event of a fire. Few have even bothered to establish escape routes in their homes, he says.

"There are little things like crawling on the floor during a fire to keep from breathing in heavy smoke and heat and knowing not to open doors that are hot to the touch," he says.

He says people who have inhaled smoke during a fire should not re-enter a building once they have escaped the flames and smoke.

"Carbon monoxide will remain in your lungs for 24 to 36 hours," Lieutenant Burris says. "When you go back into a burning building, you are adding [carbon monoxide] to whatever is already there."

Part of FIRES' program includes a videocassette that shows the total darkness a person experiences in a fire and how easy it is to become disoriented unless a person acts quickly and with awareness.

"It is terribly frightening," says Mr. Perry, a state tax assessor in Baltimore. "But people need to know just how horrible it is."

He and Lieutenant Burris operate FIRES with little money. They get help from volunteers, including retired firefighters, the U.S. Fire Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and other fire safety organizations.

"We feel we can make a difference," Mr. Perry says. "We feel a lot of these fatal fires can be prevented. We just need to change people's attitudes.

"There are a lot of fundamental techniques that can help someone survive a fire. Just making sure that a battery has been placed in a smoke detector . . . ," he says.

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