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Program encourages Hagerstown landlords to help prevent fires

October 06, 2008|By HEATHER KEELS

HAGERSTOWN -- In a continuing effort to cut down on fires in rental properties, the Hagerstown Fire Department is promoting a new program that attempts to reach tenants through a persuasive channel: their landlords.

Since March, the department has offered free lithium-battery smoke alarms to Hagerstown property owners who agree to draft lease agreements requiring responsible behaviors from their tenants, Fire Prevention Coordinator Mike Weller said.

Those agreements expose tenants to a $500 civil citation if they take down the smoke alarm or render it disabled, and prohibit risky behaviors such as leaving cooking food unattended, smoking inside and using portable heaters, Weller said.

The focus on rental properties is a response to the fact that about 90 percent of residential fires in Hagerstown occur at such properties, Weller said. He attributed that in part to economics and in part to the higher level of responsibility that comes with owning a home.

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Weller said that at first, he was disappointed with the level of response to the program, but interest has picked up following a change in the city's fire code on July 1. The change gives landlords one year to upgrade to lithium-battery smoke alarms in buildings with three or more units. The lithium-battery smoke alarms, which cost about $18 in stores, last about 10 years without any battery replacements, Weller said.

"Interest in our property-owner initiative is now extremely brisk," Weller said. "Offering the alarms for free is an economic incentive."

The program is only one of several fire-prevention initiatives ramped up in the city in recent years, Weller said. The department also goes door-to-door to talk to residents about fire safety, partners with numerous local agencies and installs free lithium-battery smoke alarms in individual households upon request.

The work is made possible through several grants, including Smoke Alarms for Everyone, a federal grant distributed by the Maryland Department of Health, Federal Emergency Management Agency funds, and a Safe Communities grant from the World Health Organization, also distributed through the state health department, Weller said.

o Hagerstown residents and property owners may request free lithium-battery smoke alarms or fire safety advice by calling 301-791-2205.

o This week is Fire Prevention Week. For details, go to firepreventionweek.org.

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