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Group fans out to prevent fires

April 27, 1997

By BRENDAN KIRBY

Staff Writer

Firefighters usually try to put out fires as soon as the flames ignite. Mike Weller tried to put them out this weekend before they even started.

"When we go to a fire, a portion of what we stand for has failed," said Weller, home safety education officer for the Hagerstown Fire Department. "We take that very, very seriously."

Weller led teams of firefighters and Lowe's employees through several blocks of Hagerstown on Saturday and Sunday to check smoke detectors, give away safety devices and query residents for a survey.

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All of the equipment and information materials were donated by Lowe's Home Centers Inc. as part of a nationwide contest. The Hagerstown Fire Department, which was selected by the local Lowe's store, is in the running for a $20,000 grand prize.

Sunday's work was slowed a bit by a steady rain and several fire calls that pulled team members away, but Weller said he thought the overall effort went well.

Fire officials were able to make contact with 112 of the 225 homes they approached over the weekend, Weller said. Of those, Weller said the teams took some action in 43, or 38 percent.

Actions ranged from installing smoke detectors to replacing batteries.

While he faces a constant battle against complacency, Weller said he would much rather see firefighters handing out smoke detectors than fighting blazes.

"We would rather act pro-actively than reactively," he said.

Weller said most people are receptive when officials come around. Blanche C. Schwinger, 92, who lives on North Mulberry Street, said she had not changed her smoke alarm batteries since the last time fire officials visited five years ago.

"I just am negligent. I'm lazy," she said. "I take everything for granted, that everything will be OK. I very seldom have trouble."

Schwinger said she was grateful for new batteries, though, and eagerly awaited the visit on Saturday.

"I was waiting for them, hoping they wouldn't skip me," she said.

Officials found other residents better equipped. Rebecca Blevins and Teresa Alderton had four smoke detectors at their John Street home. Blevins said her parents used to make the family practice fire drills and kept a ladder underneath a bed on the upper floor.

"It worked," she said.

Alderton said she regularly checks the lights on the smoke detectors to make sure they are working. Still, she said she found the firefighters' visit helpful. Weller showed her that her electric detectors had battery backups and firefighters found alarms in the attic and basement.

"I totally forgot we had some up the attic and in the basement," Alderton said.

Augie Cortez, a Lowe's manager who volunteered to help install new alarms and change batteries, said the store has worked well with the fire department in the past. He said the program, aside from building goodwill, also makes good business sense.

"We need to be out in the community," he said.

Weller said he does not want the partnership to end with these visits. Rather than undertaking a comprehensive survey of the city every five years - as has been the practice - he said he would like to see the department pursue an ongoing fire prevention program.

Businesses like Lowe's can be key partners in that campaign, Weller said.

"I'm hoping this will be a regular effort," he said.

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