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Many smoke detectors not ready for fire

December 08, 2003|by BRIAN SHAPPELL

shappell@herald-mail.com

The good news for residents of Hagerstown and some surrounding municipalities is that most people have smoke detectors in their homes.

The bad news is many of them don't work properly.

Hagerstown Fire Department Spokesman Mike Weller said firefighters from the city, as well as Williamsport and Maugansville, are going door-to-door trying to teach people about maintaining their smoke detectors. Weller said many people are unaware their detectors are not ready to go off in case of a fire.

"People see an alarm and assume everything is all right," Weller said. "Complacency is deadly."

Weller said tragedy was averted during a fire on Frederick Street at a duplex Nov. 25 because of a working smoke detector in one of the two residences. Weller said that may not have been the case if the person inside the residence without a detector was sleeping.

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"(It) was a perfect example underscoring the problem," Weller said. "If that fire happened at 2 a.m., it easily would have been a fatal fire."

Weller said city firefighters have been aggressive for years in testing residences' smoke detectors, visiting approximately 4,000 between April and June this year. While the rate of people with smoke detectors is about 99 percent, the problem is that many are not maintained properly, Weller said. Many residences either have detectors that are more than 10 years old or contain no batteries, or they do not have them on every level of their house, he said.

Weller said he believes part of the problem is many renters believe landlords are responsible for maintaining smoke detectors. However, landlords only are required to do so if the building contains four or more housing units, he said.

"That's a big misnomer," he said. "People need to accept responsibility for their own safety."

Still, Weller said the rate of people with well-maintained, functional detectors in the city is 78 percent to 92 percent. He said that is not the case in areas outside the city.

"The really serious problem is not downtown areas - these have been in Maugansville and Williamsport," Weller said.

Williamsport Volunteer Fire Co. Chief Will Ball agreed that Williamsport has a problem with detector maintenance.

Ball said a committee of about six volunteers has been spearheading a program modeled partially after the one in Hagerstown.

The volunteers have made attempts, which have been met at times by resistance from homeowners, at 275 residences, Ball said. He said they have checked about 92 of those residences and found some unnerving results in more than one-third of them.

"The shocking thing is out of 92 homes, you had to put up 39 detectors," Ball said. "That shows us there is a problem there."

Ball said at one point, volunteers found seven nonfunctioning detectors in a span of 10 homes. He said many of the detectors were very old or contained no batteries.

Ball, who met with Weller for tips on creating a successful detector-awareness program, said he believes it will take time and effort for it to catch on in Williamsport.

"Hagerstown has had great success, but it's taken them many years to get that done," Ball said.

One nearby group that has been running a door-to-door survey program for a decade has been the Maugansville Goodwill Volunteer Fire Co., said volunteer firefighter Joe Goodrich.

However, Goodrich said he is worried that word of the fire company's efforts is not getting out.

"We were kind of disappointed that we found, in a one-block area, out of 36 homes, we had 30 with nonworking smoke detectors," Goodrich said. "Most had no idea when they should change their batteries, how often, any of that."

Goodrich said most children are more aware of smoke detector maintenance, including changing batteries when clocks are set back or set forward one hour biannually.

Maugansville volunteers checked more than 200 homes in the summer and fall this year, according to Goodrich. He said doing so is more difficult for his department because, unlike city firefighters, the people checking homes in Maugansville all are unpaid volunteers.

Overall, Goodrich estimated that about 30 percent of Maugansville residences were not in compliance. He said one way to avoid that is calling the local department and asking for help in checking detectors.

"At any time, you could call us, and we'd be glad to come out and check it," Goodrich said. "That's better for us than having to deal with a fatal fire."

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