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County fire fatality totals rise

February 24, 2004|by BRIAN SHAPPELL

shappell@herald-mail.com

Maryland had its third-lowest fire-related fatality total ever in 2003, but Washington County had more fires in 2003 than in the previous four years combined, the Maryland State Fire Marshal's Office reported.

Deputy State Fire Marshal Faron Taylor said 71 deaths statewide were attributable to fire in 2003, the third-lowest tally since the state began keeping records in 1975 and the lowest since 2000, when there were 67 deaths.

He said most of the deaths, 59, happened in homes, many of which did not have properly functioning smoke detectors.

"Eighty percent of our fatalities statewide are in residences," Taylor said. "Simply, people are most vulnerable to the effects of fire when they are asleep."

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The state is not off to a strong start in 2004, he said.

"Since Jan. 1, there have been 26 fatalities statewide, not including the potential of crash victims from the Interstate 95 wreck on Jan. 13," Taylor said. "We have not seen early totals like this since the late 1970s and the early 1980s," Taylor said.

One of those 25 deaths occurred on Feb. 5 at 201-203 E. Franklin St. Firefighters who turned out to battle a blaze found Henry Dean, 68, dead inside a third-floor apartment. Ron Horn, deputy fire chief of the Hagerstown Fire Department, said that fire was caused by a child playing with a lighter.

Horn said that death, and three others in Hagerstown in 2003, are discouraging for the city fire department.

"It feels like we're not getting the message out there," he said. "We do try to use it as a barometer for our fire- prevention programs."

He said the two main priorities for the Hagerstown Fire Department are putting out fires and educating the public on fire-prevention methods. Horn said the goal every year is to match the totals of zero from 2000 and 2001.

Horn said with the population of Washington County growing, it is difficult to educate everyone and reach that "zero" goal.

"We're hoping more people and more fires doesn't mean more deaths," he said.

Horn said that in 2003, at least two of the deaths, one in Hagerstown and one in Williamsport, could not have been prevented because they were successful suicide attempts.

Horn said the number of preventable fires and corresponding deaths was low locally in recent years because of public information campaigns, technological advances and, especially, laws requiring smoke detectors.

He said that without smoke detectors, the number of fire-related deaths would be much higher.

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