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A new way to save lives? How do you get people to protect themselves?

December 10, 2003

It's a question health and public-safety officials have been asking for years. People know that their chances of surviving a car crash dramatically improve when they wear seat belts, but 60 percent of the 32,519 people killed in U.S. car wrecks last year weren't belted up.

People know that smoking cigarettes isn't healthy - there's a warning on each pack - but that didn't prevent 440,000 Americans from dying from tobacco-related diseases last year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

And people certainly know that smoke detectors save lives, but the National Fire Protection Association reports that though more than 90 percent of all U.S. homes have them, about 20 percent of those units don't work.

In many cases that's because people have "borrowed" the batteries for other purposes or removed them because the detector sounded a low-battery alarm.

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That's what firefighters from Hagerstown and other Washington County municipalities are finding as they do volunteer inspections. In Hagerstown, 99 percent of the 4,000 residences visited each year have detectors, but a percentage of those units are either too old or without batteries.

Outside Hagerstown, which has had an aggressive smoke-detector program for years, the percentage of working detectors is lower. Williamsport volunteers who recently visited 99 homes had to install smoke detectors in 39 of them. In Maugansville, volunteers found 30 non-working detectors in 36 homes.

Doing checks is more difficult for departments outside the city which have all-volunteer crews working on detector-inspector detail. That suggests a possible solution.

The last Board of County Commissioners heard a proposal for a coordinated county-wide fire/rescue fund appeal. Why not combine the collection of donations with a smoke-detector inspection and the provision of fresh batteries, if necessary.

To the companies that might say they don't have the personnel for such an effort, why not seek additional volunteers, not for running calls, but for checking smoke detectors and picking up money?

For a couple of weeks per year, such volunteers could provide a great service to their communities, even though they would never ride an ambulance or a fire truck. Despite that, their efforts just might save some lives.

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