There were no lights and sirens, no billowing smoke or scary flames, but some Fort Worth firefighters were working hard this week to prevent fires, not put them out.
They installed 48 smoke alarms and put in 71 batteries after knocking on 192 doors Tuesday and Wednesday in neighborhoods where two fatal fires occurred last week.
In 2012, smoke alarms were present and operating in only 7 percent of the fatal fires in Texas, a state fire marshal’s report said.
Nationwide, 3 in 5 fire-related deaths from 2007 to 2011 occurred in residences without a working smoke alarm, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
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Most fatal fires happen when people are sleeping, and as the materials in home furnishings have changed, the time available for a safe escape has decreased, said Tim Hardeman, a Fort Worth Fire Department spokesman.
And what materials in home furnishings have changed? Think The Graduate.
Our homes are now filled with plastics, according to U.S. Fire Administration staff.
Nearly all plastics are made from petroleum products, and once they ignite, they burn hot and fast, said Larry McKenna, a U.S. Fire Administration researcher.
And the open floor plans that are now popular do little to confine smoke or fire. Also, McKenna said, the more airtight residential environments brought on by a desire for energy efficiency do little to disperse toxic gases given off by burning plastics, McKenna said.
“You get a couple of breaths of [toxic gas] and one of the first things to go is your ability to make rational decisions,” McKenna said.
“No one is proposing that we go back to the old way. That’s not going to happen. The best answer is residential sprinkler systems, which builders hate because of the costs it adds to construction. The next best answer is to have a working smoke alarm.”
Breathing the superheated gases from burning plastics can damage lung tissues and do more harm than injuries from the fire, Hardeman said.
Plastics don’t catch fire easily, but when the temperature gets high enough, all the plastic material in a room can catch fire at once, said Tom Olshanski, a U.S. Fire Administration spokesman. The dynamic is called flashover, and it makes surviving and fighting a residential fire much harder than it used to be.
“When I first started in this business in the ’70s, people had 11 to 12 minutes to safely get out of a burning structure,” Olshanski said. “That number has now dropped to two to three minutes that people have to get out safely before a room erupts.
“Now it’s more important than ever that people have early warning in a fire and have a plan of where they should meet.”
3 fatal fires
On Friday, Larry Davis, 62, was pronounced dead after he was pulled from a fire at his house in the 1200 block of East Baltimore Street.
On Jan. 2, firefighters carried Darrell Chambers, 50, out of a first-floor unit that caught fire at the Springbrook Apartments in the 6500 block of Normandy Road in far northeast Fort Worth.
Chambers was taken to John Peter Smith Hospital and was pronounced dead early Friday.
They were the city’s first two fire fatalities of 2014.
On Dec. 31, Mildred Ballard, 87, of Fort Worth died at Parkland Memorial Hospital from smoke inhalation and thermal injuries sustained Dec. 26 when her house in the 900 block of East Maddox Avenue caught fire. Smoke from the fire was spotted by an engine crew leaving John Peter Smith Hospital about a half-mile to the west.
The smoke alarm on the first floor of Ballard’s residence was off the wall and did not have a battery. The second floor, where Ballard slept, had no smoke detector, Hardeman said.
Ballard’s death was the seventh fire death in Fort Worth in 2013. Four of the seven were related to motor vehicle crashes, and one was an outside fire. The sixth was in a house fire, but investigators could not determine whether a smoke detector was present.
In an average year, Fort Worth has six fire-related deaths, Hardeman said.
In Davis’ house and in the Normandy Road apartment fire, investigators couldn’t determine whether a smoke detector was present.
Firefighters went to the neighborhoods surrounding the 6500 block of Normandy Road on Tuesday and Wednesday, and they canvassed the Morningside community around the 1200 block of East Baltimore Street to spread smoke alarm awareness, Hardeman said.
“We just want to remind people that there is a simple, inexpensive device that will save your life,” Hardeman said.
In a big apartment fire in Everman last week, the smoke alarms sounded as they were melting in the fire, according to Randy Sanders, Everman’s director of emergency services. No one died in that fire, but about 75 residents were displaced. Arson is suspected.
Installing smoke alarms
Garesha Jackson, 25, said she moved into her rental house in the 1200 block of East Ramsey Avenue about 11 months ago and has looked at the smoke alarm above her bedroom door almost every day. It just never occurred to her to change the battery, Jackson said.
“I should have,” Jackson said. “I thought my landlord was supposed to do it.”
Firefighters placed a new battery in Jackson’s smoke alarm and made sure it was secured to the ceiling Wednesday.
“It was just hanging on by the wires,” said Vincent Bonilla, a Fort Worth firefighter.
Two houses down, firefighters replaced two smoke alarms at Glenn Nugent’s house. Nugent, 52, said the alarms were barely audible.
“This is a blessing,” Nugent said.
For the amount of protection it provides, the cost of a working smoke alarm is negligible, Hardeman said.
“A smoke detector is like insurance. When you need it, if you don’t have it, it’s too late,” Hardeman said.
The Fire Department has a free smoke detector program for Fort Worth residents. Smoke detector drives are planned for this year, and firefighters will canvass neighborhoods where a serious injury or a death occurs in a residence fire.
Some residents remove the batteries when smoke alarms go off during cooking and the noise becomes a nuisance, Hardeman said. Sometimes people take out the batteries for use in other devices.
Those who may be too infirm to maintain their smoke alarm and who do not want the Fire Department’s help should call a neighbor, firefighters said. Having a working smoke detector is too important a task to leave undone, Hardeman said.
“We want to take a bad situation and use the opportunity to make something good come out of it,” Hardeman said.