Firefighters hope to hand out tens of thousands of free smoke detectors this year by going door-to-door in city neighborhoods, a practice that the Baltimore Fire Department credits with helping bring fatal fires to historic lows.
Thirteen people have been killed in fires in Baltimore this year, which tops last year's figure of 12. Still, fire deaths have declined dramatically in recent decades, and department officials believe they can continue to fall.
"We feel really good about that and we'll feel better if we can stop any fire fatalities for November and December," said Jeffrey R. Segal, the department's acting fire chief.
The Baltimore Fire Department started handing out free smoke alarms in the 1980s, a time when dozens died in fires each year. In 1984, the deadliest year on record, 88 people were killed.
And a few years ago, fire officials began sending firefighters to knock on doors and offer a fire safety inspection and a free smoke alarm on each floor. Since 2009, the department has bought more than 48,600 smoke alarms.
The program is supported by grants, including a recent $150,000 infusion from the federal government.
From mid-2011 to mid-2012, firefighters hit nearly 60,000 doors to offer fire inspections, Segal said. In the coming fiscal year, Segal said he hopes to increase that by at least 50 percent. This August, firefighters got to 10,000 homes, he said.
"We would love to get to 100,000 doors," Segal said. "It is time-consuming, but that's what folks are paying us for. If we can prevent an emergency, it'll save us on the back end."
Segal said that besides preventing fatal fires, sending firefighters into the neighborhood has other benefits: They learn the interior layout of both the homes and the area. That knowledge can prove crucial when a rescuer must navigate a blazing home in the dark or quickly drive a ladder truck to the scene, Segal said.
The smoke alarms have lithium batteries that last 10 years and can't be removed. Residents can also request free smoke alarms by calling 311, and firefighters will come to install them within two hours.
Segal said the priority is reaching senior citizens, who may be less likely to have working smoke detectors.
Most of the fires in the city are electrical in nature, according to fire department data. Old wiring can overload and start a fire, Segal said. Sometimes appliances catch fire, too.
With winter approaching, Segal said residents should not use stoves or kerosene-based heaters to heat the home, and should be careful with space heaters and candles.
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