As part of National Fire Prevention Week, Charlotte firefighters will launch an aggressive campaign this week to make sure residents have the resources and know-how to prevent or escape a house fire.
“Every second counts in the event of a fire,” said fire Capt. Mark Basnight. “Fires grow very rapidly. That’s the message we’re trying to get out.”
Fire Prevention Week, which runs from Oct. 7 to 13 this year, was established to commemorate the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which killed more than 250 people and left 100,000 homeless.
That historic fire began on Oct. 8 and continued through Oct. 9.
During this year’s celebration, the Charlotte Fire Department plans to:
• Launch an educational campaign that will include installing smoke alarms for free and encouraging family fire drills.
• Participate in the statewide family fire drill Wednesday and encourage residents to plan and practice their own drills.
• Sponsor a neighborhood canvass on Thursday, when firefighters will go door-to-door to the homes in the Rockwell Church Road area to check smoke alarms and make sure their batteries still work. If residents don’t have smoke alarms, the Fire Department will install them for free.
• On Friday, judge fire-safety poster boards that were submitted by more than 40 Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. The winner will be presented a prize by Chief Jon Hannan.
• On Saturday, offer free batteries at several locations, including stations 1, 27, 10, 42, 20, 25and 39.
Throughout the week, Basnight said, the department will honor this year’s national theme, which is “Have 2 Ways Out.”
“We’d like people to give thought to what they would do if the stairway was blocked or the normal ways of getting out of the home (were) blocked,” he said.
Ann Gibert, a pastor at Huntersville United Methodist Church, knows all too well the consequences of relying on just one way out of a house during a fire.
Thirty years ago, her neighbor died trying to escape a fire.
As a young professional living in an Atlanta apartment at the time, Gibert awoke on a September night in 1982 to the sounds of the neighbor above her screaming.
A fire had started in the woman’s living room, which was right in front of the apartment door, said Gibert.
Instead of waiting in her bedroom for firefighters to arrive or trying to go through her bedroom window, the woman tried to leave through the front door and died from smoke inhalation.
“This is close to my heart. It was a horribly frightening thing to go through,” said Gibert. “I still remember seeing that flickering glow, that horrible orange light.”
Officials later determined that the fire began from a cigarette that was left burning near the living room sofa.
While discarded smoking materials are the second-most common cause of fires nationwide after kitchen-related fires, they are actually the deadliest cause of fires, said Basnight.
In 2011, U.S. fire departments responded to 370,000 home structure fires, which caused 2,520 deaths, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
William Jones, the 2011-12 president of the N.C. State Fireman’s Association, said that one way fire safety advocates have tried to mitigate deaths caused from fire is to push state legislatures to pass the usage of fire-safe cigarettes.
Unlike normal cigarettes, which may simmer long after someone has stopped puffing on them, fire-safe cigarettes use a different type of rolling paper.
“If you’re not dragging on a cigarette, it goes out. You can’t have a smoldering cigarette because it self-extinguishes,” Jones said.
In August 2007, North Carolina legislation was signed into law that required cigarettes sold in the state to meet a fire-safety performance standard.
The law went into effect on Jan. 1, 2010.
But more than legislative change, Basnight said, educational campaigns like this week’s are the most effective at encouraging fire safety and prevention.
“These fires aren’t starting themselves. They’re manmade. They’re caused by negligence or carelessness by individuals,” he said. “We continue to educate and pass on the same information, but again, it’s going to take changing the mindset of people.”