Fire safety takes center stage for city students

In a city of aging, closely built rowhouses, where officials estimate smoke detectors are sufficiently installed in only about half, knowledge of fires is prevalent, even among the youngest of residents.

Ask a group of elementary and middle schoolers in Baltimore to raise a hand if they know someone who has survived a fire, or have seen the devastation fires can cause, and most will put a hand in the air, says Linnea Anderson, an American Red Cross representative on a recent afternoon visit to the Baltimore School for the Arts.

Among the same children, however, fire safety awareness — an area deemed by fire officials to be of critical importance in the fight to continue a recent decline in fire deaths in Baltimore — is severely lacking.

Enter the "Red Cross Tour," a partnership between the Baltimore School for the Arts and the Red Cross, under the patronage of the Transamerica Foundation, that puts seniors at the arts school on stage in front of younger students across the city, performing shows that wrap humor and schtick around public safety messages.

In its 11th year, the tour this season began in early December and focuses on fire safety. The play being performed, titled "After the Fire," is written and directed by the school's theater faculty member Tony Tsendeas, who says the tour will have been a "tremendous success" if just one student goes home with a better understanding of grease fires, or creates a fire escape plan, or plugs new batteries into an old smoke detector.

And Tsendeas expects more than one student to do just that.

"They are like dry little sponges," he said of the young audiences. "They can really suck up a lot of information."

The play, which centers around a young girl who has lived through a fire in her family's home and has to be slowly coaxed into talking about it with her doctor, is brought to life by a group of energetic arts school seniors who, on this recent afternoon, had just zipped through a rehearsal in a high-ceilinged, stiflingly warm room with minimal props.

Over the last month, as they have taken various stages before their young audiences, the arts students say they have been impressed.

Many of the younger students are engaged, listening, interested.

"It's really fun, because they react. They're not afraid to react," said Brennan Johnson, 17, a senior from the Towson area.

"They get really involved," said Isabella Boose, 18, also a senior. "I know they're into it."

As of last week, the actors had most of their lines down, and were just freshening up for their next performance at Moravia Park Elementary and Middle School on Jan. 9.

It will be a special performance.

In September, many students at the elementary school were displaced from their homes along with their families when molotov cocktails were tossed into an apartment in their building in Northeast Baltimore.

In October, two students at the school were killed in the city's deadliest fire of 2012, which also claimed the lives of their grandmother and two other children, as it tore through their family home after flammable items were left too close to a furnace.

Anderson, with the Red Cross, said the tour's purpose is to reach kids like those at Moravia Park, who have close experience with fires. The play "takes preparedness info and puts it into a format that is really there to make kids remember," she said.

"We don't want to make light of the situation," said Tsendeas. "We want to strike a balance with a very emotional core."

At one point during the rehearsal, the Baltimore School for the Arts students became a little wound up and chatty. Tsendeas stopped them. Their young audiences will view the play skeptically at first, he told the students, but if they can be won over, they will learn things that might save their lives.

"One of the ways you prove to them that it isn't stupid is your professionalism," he told the seniors.

They then started back up with the script, which is full of lessons about maintaining working smoke detectors, avoiding plugging too many appliances, gadgets or Christmas lights into one socket, not throwing water on a grease fire.

The messages do get through, said Daron Cheatham, a senior in the play.

Five years ago, Cheatham was in seventh grade at City Springs Middle School in Washington Hill when the Red Cross Tour visited. He watched the older students and knew he wanted to attend Baltimore School for the Arts and act as well, he said.

"I thought it was inspiring," he said. "And it does help. It saves lives, because I know some of my friends were like, 'Oh, you really have to get smoke detectors because this can happen and that can happen,'" he said.

Now, Cheatham sees the same messages reaching new groups of kids, in part through his own acting.

"I feel like I'm inspiring them," he said.