Fire officials spotlight safety needs
NORWALK -- One by one, fire chiefs and fire marshals from throughout the region stood to discuss preventable fires that have taken the lives of, displaced or injured residents.
Some also spoke of emotional scars the fires left on members of their departments.
All of the incidents discussed during a news conference at Norwalk Fire Headquarters Friday morning were caused by careless smoking, lack of working smoke detectors in the area of the fire, and improper disposal of fireplace ashes.
"Throughout my career as a firefighter, since 1973, I have witnessed many tragedies. The latest, and I must say one of the saddest, occurred this past Christmas," Stamford Assistant Fire Chief Peter Brown said, as he recounted the fire that killed five, including three children, in the Shippan section of Stamford.
The fire began after smoldering embers from a fireplace were placed in a bag and left inside or directly outside a mudroom.
A hard-wired smoke detection system had not been fully installed before the fire, and it remains unclear whether the home had battery-operated smoke detectors.
Seventy-two of the members of the Stamford Fire and Rescue Department were directly affected by this fire, all needing debriefing, and some needing ongoing therapy, Brown said.
"Please help us. You must do everything in your power not to allow any children to die by fire," he said. "A smoke detector is a fairly cheap insurance to notify the occupants of a fire.
"There is no way to assure smoke detectors will function in every room that catches on fire, but it is my professional opinion that public awareness goes a long way."
He pointed out that during home renovations, at the very least temporary smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors should be outside all sleeping areas and on all levels of a residence.
"Another lesson to be learned from this tragedy is to properly discard of fireplace ashes," Brown said. "Even when you believe they have been long extinguished, they should be put in metal containers and left away from the house or any combustible structure."
Norwalk Fire Chief Denis McCarthy said usually at this time of year -- Sunday marks the return of daylight saving time-- a nationwide fire service campaign reminds people to change batteries in smoke detectors.
"For those of us who were in the fire service in the '70s,we remember that smoke detectors were relatively new and there was great emphasis on installing smoke detectors in every home," he said. "State laws were passed, building codes were enforced, and every resident had a smoke detector. In the '80s, we found that all homes were protected, whereas now we are finding homes that we go to are not protected. I think that that is a significant change."
McCarthy also said too many people are dismantling or removing smoke detectors because they are misplaced in a home and are considered a nuisance. They may be too close to a kitchen or to where steam from a shower might set them off when there is no threat from a fire.
"But people are acting recklessly when they go to bed at night by not having a working smoke detector," McCarthy said. "They are acting recklessly when they are disregarding basic safety concepts. There should be a smoke detector on every floor and in every sleeping area. There should be a three-foot clearance from combustibles to wood stoves, fireplaces and furnaces.
"And people need to have an exit plan. They need to know how to get out of every room in their house and practice that plan."
Norwalk Fire Marshal Glenn Iannacone talked about two recent fires in the city that resulted from careless smoking -- one incident Jan. 31 involved a woman who fell asleep smoking in bed, which resulted in two fatalities.
The news conference concluded with Stratford Fire Chief Robert McGrath, who previously served as Stamford's chief, relaying a fire safety success story.
On Dec. 18, an early morning fire raced through a single-story ranch-style home. The house had three bedrooms on the first floor, a bedroom in the basement, and sleeping accommodations in the living room. The fire was contained to one bedroom, the connecting hallway and kitchen, according to McGrath.
"During the investigation, it was determined that the smoke alarm located in the common hallway outside the three bedrooms activated due to smoke condition. With this activation, a young female was alerted, went to investigate, located the fire in an adjacent bedroom, alerted the several people in the dwelling, and evacuated," McGrath said.
"It was later determined during the course of the investigation that the smoke alarm that was activated and alerted the residents was installed by Stratford firefighters several months earlier."
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