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Fire prevention week focuses on education in Washington County

October 10, 2005|by ERIN CUNNINGHAM

erinc@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - Mike Weller is frustrated.

He's frustrated that people are using tools to pry smoke detectors off ceilings.

He's frustrated that toddlers are setting their beds on fire.

And he's frustrated that even a large-scale public information campaign might not do anything to stop these "senseless" fires.

Sunday marked the beginning of Fire Prevention Week, and the three topics selected - child supervision, unattended candles and kitchen fires - are frequent problems in Hagerstown, said Weller, the life safety educator for the Hagerstown Fire Department.

"Unfortunately, this was a bad year for fires," Weller said.

According to his records, unsupervised children in Hagerstown have caused $380,000 in damage to homes and property since January. A teenager who intentionally set a fire in September caused $160,000 in damage, and two candle fires this year caused a combined $100,000 in damage.

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Most of the fires were "near misses" and could have resulted in injuries or even deaths, Weller said.

Records show that in 2005, children - mostly toddlers - have started six fires in Hagerstown, Weller said. Most of the fires started in the children's rooms, where fire investigators later found that the child caught his or her bed on fire, Weller said.

He calls leaving a child unsupervised near lighters or matches, "gross negligence."

Weller said firefighters are beginning to see a slight decline in the number of cooking fires, but it is still the leading cause of fire.

"Not everyone smokes, but everybody has a stove," he said.

The number of candle fires has increased 600 percent nationally in 10 years, Weller said. He attributes the increase to the growing popularity of candles.

"If you go out, blow out your candles," he said. "Candles are fine if used properly and in proper containers. I don't like the freestanding ones."

Weller said the fire department is offering free lithium smoke alarms to rental property owners. Firefighters will install the alarms and are calling every rental property owner in Hagerstown asking them to participate, Weller said.

"We want to ensure they have working smoke alarms," he said.

In exchange for the free alarm, rental property owners will offer tenants informational pamphlets about fire safety. On the back of the pamphlet is a fire safety contract that can be written into a tenant's lease.

Weller said each of the six Hagerstown fires this year started by a child was in a rental property, which he fears is a symptom of a more "transient" lifestyle that is becoming common downtown.

"There is a direct correlation between our fire problem and rentals," Weller said.

Weller said if tenants know they will have to pay for damages and take responsibility for fires, they will be less likely to be irresponsible. So far, rental property owners have been receptive to the contracts, he said.

"While in its infancy, the initiative shows promise to make a great impact on the disturbing trend of serious fires we've seen over the past three years," Weller said.

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