Report: Free Smoke Detector Distribution Lags in Rural Areas

February 20, 2008

They’re among the most effective lifesaving devices a homeowner can have, cutting the risk of death from a fire nearly in half.

But rural communities — where people are at greatest danger of dying by fire — usually lack programs for free distribution of smoke alarms, a new federal report says.

The report advises rural fire companies to partner with churches, senior centers, civic leaders and health-care workers to help prevent fire deaths in America’s smallest communities.

The report funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s U.S. Fire Administration aims to reduce fatalities in rural communities of less than 2,500 people, which have a fire death rate twice that of larger population centers.

Many such communities are poor and depend on volunteer fire departments, researchers from the National Fire Protection Association found. Only 20 percent of those companies give away free smoke alarms, compared to 70 percent of fire departments serving communities of 100,000 or more.

The researchers looked at government-funded projects that have installed thousands of smoke alarms in poor, rural communities in the Southeast and Southwest. They found that a key common denominator was the involvement of local groups, civic leaders and volunteers.

“In any given community, a fire-service person may be a natural choice to get the ball rolling, but they need to know how to identify people in the community who know how to get things done,” said lead researcher Sharon Gamache, director of high-risk outreach programs for the NFPA in Quincy, Mass.

To that end, the report advises rural fire companies to seek help from public and private health-care workers, churches, schools, senior citizen centers, rural electrical cooperatives, cooperative extension programs and others to distribute smoke alarms door to door. The USFA, based in Emmitsburg, Md., provides grants to fund such programs.

“There are little nuances for each community, but the basic organizational skills are finding the leaders, building trust in the leaders, training people in that community and figuring out the local resources they’re going to need,” Gamache said.

One model is Holmes County, Miss., where volunteers installed nearly 9,000 smoke detectors in the two years after a trailer fire that killed six children in Tchula in October 2002. The project was funded by $150,000 each from NFPA and USFA, and $1,000 from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Margaret Wilson, the project’s paid coordinator, said about two-thirds of the nearly 90 volunteers were firefighters. The rest were people she recruited through newspaper ads, flyers and talks to groups, including retired teachers and law-enforcement officers.

Clinton Cobbins, the county’s fire coordinator, said he worked with churches and public officials, including county supervisors. “They knew the roads. They knew how many houses were on those roads,” Cobbins said.

Wilson said that when some residents balked at letting volunteers into their homes, she sent out someone else who lived or worked nearby, putting the resident at ease. Most people relaxed when they understood that the visitor wasn’t seeking money but was offering a free, lifesaving appliance.

The project ended with working smoke alarms in 95 percent of the county’s households, up from 45 percent at the outset, organizers said.

“We may not be able to save everybody, but we do want to be able to alert them that there is a fire in their home,” Wilson said.


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