City department reports fewer fire fatalities

Smoke detector campaign credited for low figures

record might be broken

November 08, 1999|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

With only 16 fatalities since Jan. 1, Baltimore might end 1999 with the fewest fire deaths since the Fire Department began keeping records in 1938.

The record low is 22 deaths in 1996, and Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a Fire Department spokesman, said -- barring a string of frigid temperatures forcing people to find dangerous ways to keep warm -- the city should end 1999 below that number.

Torres credited the city's smoke detector program, in which firefighters provide and install free smoke detectors to anyone who needs one, for the low number of deaths.

"For every minute we spend in a home installing a smoke detector, that probably means hours we don't spend sifting through fire debris," Torres said.

Torres estimated the department has installed 1,000 smoke detectors every month since the program began in 1994, resulting in a 50 percent decline in fire deaths since the early 1990s.

Statewide, 63 people had died in fires as of Sept. 31, the latest figure available, surpassing the record low of 62 in 1996.

Friday morning, two sisters, ages 17 and 5, were killed in Cumberland while sleeping in a log cabin-style house that did not have smoke detectors.

"The city is doing very well, but the rest of the state is falling behind," said Kathy Rose, a state fire marshal's office research analyst.

Between 1976 and 1988, Baltimore had an average of 53 fire deaths annually, Torres said. In 1984, 88 people died, the record high.

Many of the deaths occur in late fall or winter, when space heaters, extension cords and holiday lights are being used, Torres said.

In 1994, frigid weather was a factor when seven people died in a fire Jan. 9 in a rowhouse on Edgewood Street. The fire was started when clothing on a heating grate ignited. A month later, a family of nine, including six children, died in a Hollins Street fire from a candle placed too close to a couch.

Those fires, coupled with a dozen other fire-related deaths in January and February that year, caused Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. to begin efforts to offer free smoke detectors to residents.

The program, sponsored by the city, WMAR-TV (Channel 2) and local businesses, provides residents with smoke detectors installed by firefighters. The program was modeled after one established in 1981 by then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer. During that effort, more than 20,000 smoke detectors were given to residents, Torres said.

The program fizzled in 1982 when support and donations of smoke detectors waned, Torres said. All detectors installed now are donated by businesses.

"We want to make sure they go up and are functioning the way they should," Torres said. "The program also gives the Fire Department the opportunity to establish a better relationship with the public."

Cynthia Addison recently joined the city and state's effort to reduce fire deaths. Addison lost five of her 10 children April 23, 1993, during a fire at 1326 Ensor St. in Greenmount.

Addison had a smoke detector, but removed it several months before the fire, which claimed the lives of her five daughters, all younger than age 6, who were sleeping in a second-floor bedroom.

"When I would cook, it was very sensitive and would go off, so I took it down," said Addison, who is featured in a state fire marshal's office video on the importance of smoke detectors. "What I have gone through, each time there is a fire, especially with children, it's a reminder," she said.

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