February 18, 2013
Install, improve smoke detectors
By Arthur H. Gunther III
In the last century and certainly before that, house fires were generally devastating, killing many people and destroying all property. Today, with modern, quite scientific firefighting technique, improved building construction and smoke alarms, the fatality rate as well as the amount of damage have been blessedly reduced. Key to all that is the ability of humankind to use its noggin in “progress.”
Today’s firefighters, professional and the even greater number of volunteers, are so very well trained, and whether they receive a salary or not, they give continuing hours beyond any compensation, even the reward of service, to additional instruction. And it is intense. Some years ago, I was invited to take part in an exercise at the Rockland County, N.Y., Fire Training Center. We suited up in fire protection gear, quite heavy, put air packs on our backs and sat in a shuttered trailer where a fire was set to reach about 1,600 degrees.
The training exercise required us to don a breathing mask in the smoke, to have our wits about us as we did that and also to take the initial first breath, which would get our air apparatus going. Then we watched as the growing fire licked at us as if it had a sinister life of its own, which it does. It was a humbling moment, for you quickly realize that you must treat fire with respect, for it can harm and kill, but also as something to defeat.
Firefighters know this, and our communities are well guarded by these men and women. They surely use their noggins to keep us safe, constantly improving training and tools. Yet with all that, it is the ordinary citizen who must also use his/her head to assist the firefighter, to prevent fires or at least limit destruction and to surely save lives. The modern smoke alarm does that, but only of if the battery is good and the alarm itself is properly placed, is not older than 10 years, and there are enough of them.
Recently in Rockland, two women died in a blaze in which the home had no smoke detectors. Sometimes firefighters find alarms but dead batteries. A $10 smoke detector can give you precious time, perhaps enough to escape or to suffer less injury.
It is impossible to consistently change human nature so that people install detectors on every floor, in each bedroom space, as well as carbon monoxide alarms, and to check the batteries every fall and spring. This despite so much media publicity and the work of fire departments everywhere to get the message out. Yet the shouting must continue.
If I were a smoke detector manufacturer, and if I were writing code for municipalities, I would develop and require detectors that have two batteries, one not removable and with longer life than the standard 9-volt one. When the 9 volt began to lose power, the alarm would make its distinctive beeping sound, yes, but since the battery might simply be removed by the homeowner, the second battery would send a signal to an outside-mounted, small-voltage LED light that would blink until the detector is restored to use.
Any passing police officer, firefighter, neighbor, etc., could then easily alert the homeowner, if he/she had not already noticed.
We must use common sense to prevent terrible fires, to save lives. Buy, install and maintain smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. And, manufacturers, give us outside warning devices.
The writer is a retired newspaperman.