Education has reduced number of Cedar Rapids fire deaths, officials say

Fire chiefs suggest replacing smoke detector batteries at Daylight Saving Time

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Half the fatal fires in Cedar Rapids in the last decade happened in homes without smoke alarms.

According to data provided by the Cedar Rapids Fire Department, Cedar Rapids has had 10 fire-related fatalities since 2006. One involved a vehicle. Of the other nine deaths, five happened in residences without smoke alarms, including a Cedar Rapids couple — Ronald and Karen Jacobs — who died from injuries suffered when their mobile home caught fire Feb. 15.

In two other fatal fires, firefighters said a smoke alarm was present, but they don’t know if it was working. The final two fatal fires involved working smoke alarms, but residents were physically challenged, the fire department said.

With Daylight Saving Time approaching Sunday and fire departments across the country reminding residents to “Change Your Clock, Change Your Batteries,” local fire officials are reminding citizens that smoke alarms save lives.

“It’s proven,” said Cedar Rapids Fire Chief Mark English. “Over the years, they’ve saved lives. ... Next month, I’ll have 30 years (at the fire department). I’ve never been to a fatal fire myself that had a working smoke detector.”

Cedar Rapids public safety spokesman Greg Buelow said from 1964 to 1973, Cedar Rapids averaged 4.4 fire deaths a year. These days, the city averages less than one a year. One thing he attributes that to is America Burning, a 1973 report from the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control.

“One of the recommendations in that was public education, community outreach,” he said.

The department is striving to be more proactive when it comes to fire safety, English said.

“We’re trying to educate people and look at that prevention arm of it instead of just responding,” he said.

Part of that outreach effort is done by firefighter and public education specialist Julie Popelka. Much of Popelka’s efforts are focused on two demographics — school-age children and senior citizens.

“A lot of these seniors have a smoke detector, but it’s 20-30 years old and it’s only one (in the home),” Popelka said. “They’re only good for 10 years.”

“They don’t realize they also need to have them in every bedroom,” she added. “You might have them on every level ... but they don’t have them in every bedroom and on every level.”

Part of Popelka’s job is the Remembering When program, which sees her visiting homes of senior citizens to not only look for proper smoke detector placement, but to also talk about fire and fall safety.

In addition to that, the fire department visits each third-grade classroom in the city five times a year as part of the Learn Not to Burn Program. English said the program — which covers developing an escape plan, using a 911 and crawling through the department’s fire safety trailer — reaches more than 2,000 students each other.

“We get a lot of benefit from that,” he said. “They tell the adults they live with ... we get results through that.”

A grant through the State Fire Marshal’s Office allowed the fire department to install 197 smoke alarms and hand out 706 batteries to Cedar Rapids citizens in 2015, free of charge, English said.

Other communities are undertaking similar efforts. Iowa City Fire Marshal Brian Greer said this year, the Iowa City Fire Department will team with the American Red Cross for a smoke detector blitz in the Lucas Farms neighborhood. Firefighters and volunteers will install smoke detectors, educate citizens on their value and track where those smoke detectors have been installed.

“If everything goes well, we’ll hopefully pick another neighborhood a few months later,” Greer said.

Iowa City has not had a fire death since March 2000, an arson on Crosspark Avenue. Greer credits that to the city’s inspection program — a joint effort between the fire and housing departments — and the fire department’s education program

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