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'Significant' fires increase in Hagerstown

March 07, 2005|by WANDA T. WILLIAMS

wandaw@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - Despite door-to-door canvassing to some 4,000 homes every summer and passing out thousands of free smoke alarms, residential fires in the city of Hagerstown have more than tripled in the first two months of the year, said Mike Weller, Hagerstown Fire Department's public educator.

"Since the first of the year there have been 10 significant fires, all in just two months," Weller said.

Significant fires are defined as fires that cause substantial damage to at least one room of a building.

In an average year, the department responds to about two substantial fires in the same time frame, he said.

Cooking, arson, unattended children playing with cigarette lighters or matches, and faulty electrical systems are among the causes in the recent rash of significant fires, Weller said.

Residential fires in the city have increased in frequency and severity since 2003, he said. While the fire department's aggressive public education program has targeted thousands of city residents, Weller said the root of the problem won't be solved by existing fire prevention programs.

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"It will have to take a cultural change in our community that focuses on personal responsibility," Weller said.

The act of leaving food cooking on a stove unattended is still the top cause of residential fires in the city of Hagerstown, Weller said. Such fires have increased 10 percent in the last 18 months. Cooking fires account for 50 percent of all city residential fires, he said.

With distractions like cell phones, computers and video games, a growing number of people just aren't paying attention, he added. Weller said it's a simple matter of people putting convenience over safety.

Also, the recent rash of fires all have occurred at rental properties, Weller said.

"There is a direct correlation between people who rent and these fires," said Weller, who recently met with city landlords to discuss ways to work with tenants to prevent fires.

"I need landlords to help us change tenant behavior. The city wants to work with them," Weller said.

Even though the fire department distributes free smoke alarms every summer, firefighters return the following summer to many of the same homes only to find missing smoke alarms. Many are removed, destroyed or not working due to the removal of batteries and other forms of tampering, Weller said.

To combat the problem, in May the Hagerstown Fire Department no longer will provide free 9-volt-battery-operated smoke alarms to the public. They will be replaced by smoke alarms powered by a sealed lithium battery and will continue to be available at no cost.

Paid for with federal and local money, the $30 smoke alarms come with a 10-year warranty and a special attachment.

"If a property owner wants to put one in, they can lock it to the ceiling. Tenants won't be able to rip them down so easily," Weller said.

Landlords and property owners interested in improving fire safety on their property can contact Weller at 301-739-8577, ext. 415.

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