Raising the alarm

December 11, 2007

It is always tragic when lives are lost to fire, and all the more so when the lives cut short are those of children. But the deaths last week of 11-year-old Abigail Young and her brother, Matthew, 16, from a fire in their Roland Park home hit this newspaper especially hard, because their dad, Stephen A. Young, a deputy copy desk chief, is a member of the Baltimore Sun family.

As we grieve for the Youngs' loss and hold in our thoughts Mr. Young, who was critically injured in the fire, it seems appropriate to reflect on ways that other households might be spared such a disaster.

The cause of that fire is not yet known. But every home, after all, is at risk.

Especially during the winter months, when space heaters, fireplaces and chimneys add to the fire danger, residents must be vigilant about keeping their homes safe. That means buying space heaters that are certified as approved by an independent testing laboratory, and using them only as instructed, and only when the room they are in is occupied. Fireplaces should have safety screens to keep sparks from flying into the room, and chimneys should be professionally cleaned to remove creosote build-up that can ignite.

In Baltimore, the most common causes of house fires are careless use of smoking materials and kitchen fires, from cooking accidents. On both those counts, the best prevention is just plain common sense.

But when preventive measures fail, smoke alarms can save lives. When fire races through a house, occupants often have less than two minutes to get out safely. That's why early warning is so critical. Yet many households have either no smoke alarms at all or none that is working. Who hasn't pulled the batteries out of a waywardly beeping alarm, and then never replaced them?

With the holidays upon us - meaning extra candles, potentially overloaded circuits from colored lights indoors and out, and Christmas trees hard by fireplaces and heat vents - this is the right time to take stock, and stock up. Smoke alarms range from $7 to $40, depending (literally) on the bells and whistles, at hardware and discount stores. In many communities, including Baltimore, residents can fill out a form at their local firehouse and a firefighter will evaluate their home and install smoke alarms where needed free of charge.

Baltimore has suffered 31 deaths - including that of a 67-year-old Northwest Baltimore man on Saturday - and far more injuries, from the hundreds of fires that have occurred this year. Home fires don't discriminate as to neighborhood or dwelling size; every home is vulnerable. How ineffably sad that it takes one tragedy to, perhaps, prevent another.

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