Preventable fire deaths Common winter tragedy: Fatal fires are decreasing but are still too frequent.

January 16, 1998

FIRE DEATHS in Baltimore during winter are as expected as cold winds and frost. It has to do with the city's poverty, which has too many families using dangerous methods to provide light and heat. It has to do with the city's old housing stock, which can have people sleeping in multistoried dwellings that become deathtraps in any blaze.

No matter how common fire deaths become, they're never easy to accept. Each time, the rest of us are left to ponder what might have been done differently to save a life.

Five members of one family died in a fire early Wednesday. The cause is being investigated, but their house had kerosene lanterns, space heaters and a jury-rigged cable to obtain electricity.

Fire officials say they didn't find a smoke detector in the house. That is particularly disturbing because the Baltimore Fire Department goes to great lengths to see that it never happens.

Residents can ask at their nearest firehouse for a free smoke detector, which city firefighters will install. Of course, if you're trying to hide something -- such as a dangerous and illegal electrical connection -- you might never ask.

The smoke-detector program is one reason fire deaths have gone down dramatically in Baltimore. More than 45,000 free smoke detectors have been given away since 1994. As a result, a city that averaged more than 50 fire deaths a year from 1974 through 1988 saw only 22 fire fatalities in 1996 and 24 last year.

The city fire department has tried hard to spread the word, through billboards and at public forms, that free smoke detectors are available. And yet a tragedy like the one Wednesday happens. Killed were two adults and three children ages 2 to 4. It's another winter in Baltimore, and fire deaths will occur. But that doesn't mean more couldn't be avoided.

Pub Date: 1/16/98

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