City fire deaths up slightly in '97 but still low Smoke detectors credited for downward trend

January 13, 1998|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

The number of people killed in Baltimore fires increased slightly from 1996 to 1997, but officials say the overall numbers continue to show a trend toward fewer deaths.

They attribute the trend to a single factor -- more smoke detectors.

Twenty-four people died in fires last year in Baltimore, compared with 22 in 1996. Those figures were lower than any previous year going back to 1938, fire officials said.

Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. said the numbers for 1996 and 1997 are both so low they represent a dramatic drop.

By comparison, an average of 53 people were killed each year in Baltimore fires between 1974 and 1988, Williams said.

"We feel it's directly due to there being more smoke detectors out there," said Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a Fire Department spokesman.

Torres said that firefighters have installed 45,000 free smoke detectors in homes since the department began a heavily promoted distribution program after a fire on Hollins Street killed nine people in March 1994.

He said about 90 percent of the fatalities have occurred at homes and businesses without working smoke detectors.

John Hall, of the National Fire Protection Association, said the drop in Baltimore's fire fatalities is part of a national trend that began about 20 years ago.

Nationwide, the per-capita death rate fell 38 percent between 1984 and 1994, he said.

"The most obvious factor is smoke detectors," Hall said.

He said that as of 1995, smoke detectors had been installed in 93 percent of all U.S. homes. But he said the association estimates about one in five isn't working.

Hall said that smoking continues to be the leading cause of fire deaths in the United States, causing one in four of the 4,585 fatalities reported in 1995.

The city's first fire fatality this year occurred Sunday afternoon. George Harley, 58, a resident of a rowhouse in the 400 block of Furrow St. in Southwest Baltimore, where a fire was attributed to careless smoking, died of smoke inhalation, according to a medical examiner's office spokesman.

Torres said a second-floor smoke detector in the home was working. But he said that it was unclear whether the one in the basement, where the victim was staying, was working.

Pub Date: 1/13/98

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