Officials urge escape plans after deadly fires

Few minutes of preparing can save lives, chief says

January 24, 2004|By Del Quentin Wilber and Laura Vozzella | Del Quentin Wilber and Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Fires that left four adults and five children dead this month have spurred authorities to increase education and safety efforts in the hopes of teaching Baltimore residents the value of having a plan to escape a fast-moving blaze.

In all the recent fires, victims and parents lacked such strategies, which firefighters say proved to be a fatal mistake.

"I know for a fact that we could have cut these fire deaths down, maybe even by 75 percent, with one or two little things the occupants could have done," said Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr.

In recent days, fire officials have mailed letters to every elementary school principal in Baltimore asking them to call firefighters to arrange seminars for pupils. While Goodwin has appeared on television and radio shows to discuss fire safety, his firefighters have gone door to door in several neighborhoods, urging residents to get smoke detectors and develop escape plans.

In the fatal fires, four of six homes had smoke detectors, but a lack of escape plans likely contributed to deaths, officials said.

Authorities say a smoke detector sounded a warning about a fire sweeping through an East Baltimore rowhouse on New Year's Eve, but children in the home did not know how to escape or protect themselves.

Firefighters found one boy under a bed and another in a corner of a room. One died that night; another died Jan. 3 from his injuries.

On Tuesday night, a fire churned through a Southwest Baltimore rowhouse, killing two young children and an 18-year- old man.

Fire officials said they had installed a smoke detector in the house last week but could not find it in the home's charred rubble.

Martha A. Hammond, the mother of two of the victims and grandmother of the other, confirmed in an interview Thursday that firefighters installed a smoke detector but said she did not hear it sounding Tuesday night.

She leapt from a second-floor window to escape the fire.

"The children need to know what the escape plan is and need to practice it," said division Chief Theodore Saunders, commander of the city's fire marshal's office. "If you don't have an early warning from a smoke detector and you don't have an escape plan that you have practiced, your chances of survival are slim. Seconds count in a fire."

Fire officials say it only takes a few minutes of planning to give residents a better chance at surviving a fire. Among the basic steps people can take:

Install a working smoke detector. The city Fire Department will install a free one. To set up an appointment, call 410-396- SAVE or 410-396-5752.

Create an escape plan with at least two exits from your home in case one is blocked by smoke or flames. Practice the plan with your children. Firefighters will help you configure a plan when they come to inspect or install a smoke detector. You can also visit your local firehouse for help.

If you cannot escape a fire, stay low to the ground -- "like cats and dogs," Goodwin said -- and go into a room not consumed by smoke or flames. Close the door, and block any cracks with clothes or towels. Open a window only if you are having trouble breathing or to signal for help to arriving firefighters.

"You don't have time to think about these things when they happen," Saunders said. "All you have to do is call us and let us know you need help" with the plans or installing a smoke detector.

Though none of the deaths this month appear to be related to the recent cold weather, fire officials say they usually experience an increase in blazes during the winter.

Fire officials blamed more people staying inside, space heaters, candles and cooking for the increase.

Nationally, 36 percent of the nation's 3,347 fire deaths in 1999 occurred in January, February and December, according to a study by the National Fire Protection Association.

"December, January and February are the three months of the year when we see increases in fire, and a lot of it has to do with things like space heaters and candles," said Margie Coloian, spokeswoman for the National Fire Protection Association in Quincy, Mass. "We cook more in the winter months, especially when entertaining for the holidays."

Among the 50 states, Maryland ranks 20th in fire deaths, with 1.3 per 100,000 residents, according to an August 2002 report by the association. The report analyzed data from 1999 fires.

Last year, Baltimore had 4.1 fire deaths per 100,000 city residents.

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