Kitchens can be hot spots for fires

April 18, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

The percentage of Hagerstown homes with working smoke detectors is well above the national average, but the city faces a problem with kitchen fires, according to two massive Hagerstown Fire Department studies.

Volunteer and professional firefighters visited nearly 15,000 households from June to October last year inspecting smoke detectors.

In addition, the department analyzed every fire incident from a 10-year period through 1996. Building fires caused $10.5 million damage during that period, officials said.

"It was a real major project," said Mike Weller, the department's life safety educator.

The study revealed that 88 percent of all homes had working smoke detectors. That is well above the 75 percent rate nationwide in a 1994 study conducted by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

In nearly every case, the detector did not work because people either forgot to change their batteries or had taken them out, said Ken Giles, a spokesman for the commission.


Fire officials attributed Hagerstown's high rate to exhaustive efforts, which include providing free batteries and smoke detectors to those who need them.

"For the last 13 years, this department has been committed to education and prevention," Chief Gary Hawbaker said.

Weller said examining the cause of fires also provided some surprises. He said he figured smoking would be a leading cause of fire, but it ranked as the fifth most common cause.

The first? Unattended cooking.

"That's why it's very critical to do the type of evaluation we did. It's very easy in day-to-day operations to form a bias," he said.

The detailed information will allow fire officials to target their fire-prevention program like never before, Weller said.

Rather than conducting a colossal survey every five years, as has been the pattern, Weller said fire officials will concentrate on about a quarter of the city each year.

"We've kind of addressed them as a one education fits all," Hawbaker said. "This will allow us to customize our response to individual neighborhoods."

Beginning this summer, Weller said fire officials will visit about 9,340 people in the center of the city. The area runs roughly from West Side Avenue to Eastern Boulevard and from Baltimore Street to McComas Street.

These three U.S. Census tracts had among the lowest percentage of working smoke detectors. Also, a high percentage of the fires that occurred there since 1987 have been cooking fires.

Weller said these neighborhoods are susceptible to fires because of dense population, older construction and a high concentration of renters, who often believe landlords bear the entire responsibility for installing and checking smoke detectors.

"We're going to blanket these three Census tracts," Weller said. "Hopefully, within a year to 18 months, we will start to see an impact."

During the campaign, fire officials will hand out refrigerator magnets that give step-by-step instructions for preventing and handling kitchen fires. The magnets have been designed by the Impact Group, a Hagerstown graphics firm that donated the labor.

"I have been involved in the community, myself, for almost as long as I've been in this business," said Ron Coss, the company's president and a former city councilman.

The magnet features a flaming pan with a few tips: Never put water on a grease fire and never try to carry a burning pan out of the house.

That's one reason why kitchen fires injured more people than the other top five causes combined, Weller said.

Mary E. Henson was one of those victims. Last May, her husband forgot that he put something on the kettle and then left their North Mulberry Street home, she said.

"I was sitting on the couch," she said. "I don't know what happened. The smoke detector went off."

Within minutes, firefighters arrived to prevent the smoking kettle from turning into a fire. Henson, 74, said she was treated at the hospital for smoke inhalation.

Weller said many people become even more seriously hurt trying to put out grease fires.

"A simple rule of thumb is, if you cannot control that fire in 30 seconds, it's out of control," he said.

Brown said the key is the presence of smoke alarms, which range in cost from $12 to $20.

"They're going to do what you can't do when you're sleeping," he said.

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