Oxford County residents without smoke alarms can get them free of charge

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COUNTY — The American Red Cross of Maine, in conjunction with local fire departments and volunteers, has set the bar high with a goal of installing 3,000 smoke detectors in homes across Oxford County in one day.

The Red Cross partnered with Norway, West Paris, Rumford and Mexico fire departments to install the free smoke alarms from 9:15 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, March 11. People can sign up by calling 207-874-1192, ext. 113, or visiting www.redcross.org/local/maine/home-fire-preparedness-campaign. If the answering machine picks up, leave contact information and someone will call back.

This effort is part of the Fire Preparedness campaign, which kicked off roughly three years ago. The impetus was 2014 marking the deadliest year in Maine for fires in recent memory, according to Patricia Murtagh, the regional chief executive officer with the Red Cross. There were 25 people who died in fires in 2014, which is a 31 percent increase in fire deaths from 2013, according to the State Fire Marshal’s Office.

“Our goal over five years is to reduce death and injury by fire by 25 percent,” Murtagh said. “We’re working hard in Maine over the last two-and-a-half years to make people safe.”

Smoke alarms

The plan to do so is two-fold. The first part is ensuring Mainers have working smoke alarms and the second is through fire safety education and creating an evacuation plan.

“You actually have about two minutes to leave a building when a fire starts. … The toxic gases and heat in the room escalate so quickly you have two minutes – if you are warned,” Murtagh said, noting Red Cross employees are trained through the state Fire Marshal’s Office. “You have to have enough [smoke detectors] and in the right places.”

This includes a smoke alarm in every bedroom, in each hallway and on every floor. Some might not be aware that smoke alarms have a lifespan, which is 10 years, Murtagh noted.

“People often have smoke alarms and they will say they’re working – ‘When I take a shower it goes off.’ ‘Every time I cook it goes off.’ – It doesn’t mean they are working well,” she said, adding batteries need to be changed regularly in both battery operated and hardwired smoke detectors. “We can replace batteries. … Everybody knows they’re supposed to do it but most people don’t.”

Fire prevention

During the installation, representatives will sit down with homeowners and educate them on fire prevention. This includes creating a safety checklist for each home. Murtagh said often during the winter, alternate heating methods are used, including unattended open flames, which can lead to fires.

“We also work with them and create a fire evacuation plan, have them draw out the plan while we’re there and post on [their] refrigerator,” she said. “When we leave, we ask them to practice those plans with their family so they’re second nature.”

Installation

Fire safety teams of three people will go into each home signed up for the event. One person will do the alarm installation and check batteries, the second will go over the safety checklist and create the evacuation plan and the third will fill out the papers and document the installation for Red Cross records.

“We know across the nation we’ve saved over 100 lives [from this campaign],” Murtagh said, adding those numbers change every week. “Here we know we have a lot of work ahead of us. We’ve already installed 5,000 smoke alarms across the state.”

The program is paid for through donations to the Red Cross, Murtagh said. The biggest installation event thus far was in Madawaska and the surrounding area where Red Cross members, town fire departments, the EMA director and volunteers came together to install 1,000 smoke alarms in one day.

“We’re going to beat that. We’re hoping to install 3,000 smoke alarms [in Oxford County through] simultaneous smoke alarm installation events in each of those towns to get to that number because it is … pretty significant,” Murtagh said.

This is a campaign Norway Fire Chief Dennis Yates is happy to get behind.

“We said, ‘Yeah, we definitely want to get in on it.’ We think it’s well worth the effort. You can’t beat it,” he said. “The good thing is it’s free. … How can you lose? You know what they say – there is nothing really free, but these are free!”

This campaign is an extension of what Norway Fire Department has been practicing only on a larger scale. Yates said he receives occasional donations of smoke detectors – most recently from Oxford Federal Credit Union and Aubuchon Hardware – where he will install them for residents and even some nonresidents if they ask.

“A life is a life no matter where it is,” he said.

West Paris Fire Chief Troy Billings said he and his crew are excited about the upcoming program since it aligns with his goals of getting working smoke detectors in residents’ homes and stepping up the department’s fire prevention programming in the community. He added many of the calls are in response to homes with fire detectors that are older than 10 years old.

“That’s my biggest goal is to make sure everybody in town is safe. … [We] go to a lot of fires. Sometimes you hear the smoke detector chirping the whole time and sometimes you don’t hear anything and it really sticks in your head,” Billings said. “If one of these smoke detectors saves one life, it is definitely worth the whole program.”

Volunteering

To pull off a successful campaign, volunteers are needed to help with the mass-scale installation. Students from Region 9 School of Applied Technology in Mexico and Oxford Hills Technical School in Paris have stepped up to the plate.

“My Fire Science Candidates will be working jointly with Lynda Knowlton’s [Law Enforcement] Cadets to provide installation of aforementioned smoke detectors,” said Region 9 Fire Instructor Jon Longley in an email. “This works extremely well as the ‘target’ areas for the project includes Norway, West Paris, Mexico, and Rumford … all towns affiliated with both programs.”

The timeline for volunteers is:

  • Saturday, Feb. 25, precanvassing areas identified by each town’s fire department for two hours and sign up people.
  • Saturday, March 4, appointment reminder phone calls will be made.
  • Saturday, March 11, training in the morning in each town.

“We want people to be aware so they can come out and volunteer,” Murtagh said.

Those wishing to volunteer can call the same number for an appointment at 874-1192, ext. 113, or sign up at https://volunteerconnection.redcross.org/?nd=form__3665.

Allyson Hill, director of Oxford County Emergency Management Agency, told residents not to worry too much if they don’t sign up for the March 11 installation event. As long as there are excess smoke detectors, they can be installed at a later date on a first come, first serve basis.

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