Gripping my Red Cross vest and a large cup of java, I sluggishly entered the Beech Street Senior Center in Belmont, Massachusetts. My friend's please-get-rid-of-all-my-vodka party the night prior had apparently impacted my slumber. However, this Saturday morning meeting was well worth the 6 a.m. wake-up call.
Filling the center's lounge area were another two Red Cross volunteers, a half-dozen members of the Belmont Fire Department, and members of the town's Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). Our mission was twofold: install a series of smoke and carbon monoxide alarms in more than 30 homes while also leaving them with key fire safety tips. The event was part of a larger, national endeavor--the American Red Cross Home Fire Campaign--aimed at reducing death and injury caused by home fires in the U.S. by 25 percent in five years. (NFPA is a partner for this campaign.) Giving residents free smoke alarms and useful tools is how the Red Cross aims to hit the goal.
"The Red Cross responds to home fires?" is the question I get asked most frequently when I tell folks about my volunteer work with the organization. "Aren't they strictly for big disasters?" Actually, the Red Cross responds to a disaster every eight minutes, and nearly all of them are home fires. As a member of the Boston metro Disaster Action Team, I've seen firsthand how fire can crumble lives and shatter dreams. My worst day on the "job" was when I responded to a home fire that killed a Boston University student on the verge of graduation.
This is why I was elated to volunteer for something a bit more proactive. Separating into four teams, a Red Cross and CERT member joined a firefighter placed in charge of proper placement and installation of the alarms inside each home. Knocking on our first door, my team got an eyeful when an elderly man answered the door--pantsless. Even scarier was the fact that the man--who had a wife in a nursing home and now lived alone--had a series of nonworking smoke alarms. The devices that were working were outdated.
As Ross, the firefighter in my group, hoisted up a ladder and installed the new devices, I sat down with the resident. He learned about proper testing and maintenance of his new gifts, preparing a home-escape plan, and seeking safety if a fire should occur. Knowing his legs don't work the way they used to, he shook his head when I told him he only has as little as two minutes to safely escape a home fire.
"What's the number you call during an emergency?" said another homeowner in his 90s. Since the man still had his wits about him, I was shocked that he was unaware of 9-1-1. I made a point to write the number on one of my handouts in black marker. He's a nice guy--cordial and funny, with a nice family, based on his photos scattered throughout the home. My heart aches when he tells me he's afraid of dying, then elates when we leave his home safer than before. (There were no smoke alarms at all in his house.)
We enter another home of an elderly woman. Built in the 1800s, the home is beautiful, but stuffed with stuff on every level. Luckily, most of the smoke alarms were working, though outdated. (NFPA recommends replacing smoke alarms after 10 years.)
"Absolutely scary" were the words I remember Ross used to sum up what he saw in these homes. For a firefighter who has seen a thing or two in his lifetime to use that phrase meant the job we were doing was critical. The teams that day installed a total of 122 devices in 33 homes.
I slept soundly that night, and I hope the homewowners we had encountered, now safer in their homes, had done the same.
This post was written by Fred Durso, Jr., communications manager for NFPA's Fire Sprinkler Initiative.