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Firefighters' home checks bring surprises

October 07, 1997

By BRENDAN KIRBY

Staff Writer

Inspecting houses in one of the city's most affluent neighborhoods, a tidy, tree-lined street in the North End, Hagerstown fire officials recently discovered dangers they never expected.

All eight houses either had no smoke detectors, alarms that did not work or devices that were improperly placed, said Mike Weller, the department's education officer.

"I was shocked. Our staff were shocked," he said. "Had there been a fire emergency, somebody's life definitely could have been in danger."

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Weller said the experience drove home an important point about a life-safety survey the city is conducting: "No area of Hagerstown is immune from us finding deficiencies."

Fire officials continued the painstaking process of gathering information on Monday, targeting View Street in the North End.

As National Fire Prevention Week begins, Weller estimated that the department is about five-sixths of the way through the survey. He said he hopes to finish by early November.

Then the hard part begins.

Weller said it will probably take until spring to organize the reams of data into some semblance of order. Once it is, though, he said it should tell a fascinating story. Among answers Weller hopes to answer are:

- Where are the most vulnerable parts of the Hagerstown?

Analyzing the town neighborhood by neighborhood, Weller will be able to determine where awareness is low and where the lowest concentrations of smoke detectors are.

Such questions will help focus fire prevention efforts, he said.

However, Weller said he is finding few clear patterns. There likely will be small pockets of problem areas throughout the city, he said.

- What are the leading causes of fire?

Weller said officials will compare the answers residents give with actual causes from reports filed by city fire marshals.

The leading causes traditionally include unattended cooking and smoking. But Weller said many residents simply shrug when asked to pick a cause.

"A very large number of citizens have no idea what the leading cause of fire in their neighborhood is," he said.

The survey effort, which began June 1, is a comprehensive study the department conducts every five years. By the end, officials will have knocked on nearly 16,000 doors.

"This is a very extremely ambitious effort and it's very labor-intensive," Weller said.

The results should help officials fine-tune their fire prevention campaigns, Weller said. Already, he said, he has begun to spot broad trends. He said renters and senior citizens appear to have the highest concentrations of problems with their smoke detectors.

When officials find a faulty detector, they replace it free of charge. So far, Weller estimated that the department has installed devices in 375 homes.

Most residents contacted in the 1000 block of View Street Monday night had working detectors. But officials replaced batteries on a few that were old.

At one home, officials installed a smoke detector in the sleeping area to complement the one in the kitchen.

"I didn't know it was necessary to have more than one," homeowner Emma Price said. "I think it's wonderful. I'm glad to have another one."

Others said they have smoke alarms throughout their homes.

"It's like seat belts or whatever. It's a normal thing," said Ernie Blankenship.

Joseph Grumbine said he had a fire and police alarm system installed about two years ago.

"Every night before we go to bed, we punch it in, set it. We feel secure," he said.

Weller urged any resident who needs help to call the fire department at 301-790-2476.

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