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Officials frustrated by spike in fire deaths

March 08, 2004|by BRIAN SHAPPELL

shappell@herald-mail.com

Mike Weller is among many at the Hagerstown Fire Dept. who hope the three new trucks it recently purchased do not get much use.

However, the state of Maryland has been marred by serious fires in early 2004, leading many to believe it will be the worst year ever for fire deaths and no one can pinpoint exactly why, Weller says.

Weller, the department's public educator, said there has been a staggering number of serious fires both statewide and nationally during the first two months of 2004. And he said fire officials across the county are having a problem identifying one specific trend responsible for the spike in numbers this year.

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"It's extremely frustrating," he said. "I've used every resource I have at my disposal, which is a pretty full toolbox, but everyone is experiencing the same thing, and we can't put a finger on the specific cause."

Weller said some of the many reasons for recent fire fatalities include unattended cooking, candles, unsafe smoking, electricity, heating appliances and children playing with fire.

Weller said so many people have died in recent years in the city, the state and nationally for three key reasons: lack of a pre-arranged escape plan, lack of working smoke alarms and residents remaining in a building to try to fight a fire.

Firefighters urge residents to leave a building if it cannot be extinguished in 30 seconds, Weller said.

In February, the Maryland State Fire Marshal's office announced 2003 was the third-lowest in total fire-related fatalities for the state ever with 71 deaths. However, Deputy State Fire Marshal Faron Taylor said that, less than two full months into the year, there already was more than one-third of that total, 26.

Weller said this year's fatality trend has weighed heavily on firefighters everywhere.

"When you have to pull dead people out of a building, that's the ultimate failure," he said.

The high early total caused state fire officials to call a fire safety summit, which was held Wednesday, Weller said. He said the talks spawned ideas for public information initiatives like the statewide "Spring into Action" fire safety day on March 20.

Weller said local efforts for increased public education, which were set into motion prior to the summit, include door-to-door firefighter visitations to portions of Hagerstown on May 3 and a weekend-long fire safety demonstration at Wal-Mart May 8 and 9.

Weller said education efforts have helped reduced the amount of significant fires in Hagerstown by up to 50 percent, but they only can go so far without more stringent laws requiring smoke detectors and sprinklers.

Despite lower fire fatalities in recent years in the state, Weller said he knew an ominous year was on the way. He said it was inevitable because of people's complacency in regard to fire prevention, which he called the "American Paradigm of Fire."

He said many residents he has dealt with either do not know if they have a smoke detector or don't care if it is checked.

"They think, 'it can't happen to me; it won't happen to me,'" Weller said. "People are afraid of crime and afraid of terrorism, but people just take fire prevention for granted."

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