Public Safety

Cedar Rapids firefighters going door to door for fire safety

Department checks, installs smoke detectors in neighborhoods where fires have occurred

Julie Popelka of the Cedar Rapids Fire Department installs a smoke alarm in the home of an elderly resident on Bowling Street Southwest in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018. The CRPD is canvassing neighborhoods in the area to get ahead of winter fires by testing residents' smoke alarms and installing new ones when necessary, at no cost to the homeowner.  (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Julie Popelka of the Cedar Rapids Fire Department installs a smoke alarm in the home of an elderly resident on Bowling Street Southwest in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018. The CRPD is canvassing neighborhoods in the area to get ahead of winter fires by testing residents' smoke alarms and installing new ones when necessary, at no cost to the homeowner. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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Three out of every five residential fire deaths nationwide happen in homes that either don’t have smoke detectors or have smoke detectors that aren’t working, according to data from the National Fire Protection Association.

In fires where smoke detectors were present but did not go off, almost half — or 46 percent — of the smoke alarms had missing or disconnected batteries, and dead batteries caused nearly one-quarter of the smoke alarm failures.

That’s why the Cedar Rapids Fire Department has rolled out a new program dubbed “Smoke Alarm Blitz.”

“The Smoke Alarm Blitz program is designed to basically install and update smoke detectors in homes,” said Brad Cowdin, a Cedar Rapids firefighter.

“When there is a fire in a neighborhood, our goal is to get into the other homes on that block within 72 hours because that’s when people are most aware that fires can affect their homes, too,” he said. “So, basically we go door to door, we introduce ourselves and use that recent fire as a context for us to ask about the detectors in the home — if they’re current, how old they are and if there are enough — and explain to the homeowner or resident what we can do to help them make their homes safer.”

On Nov. 2, a fast-moving blaze destroyed a manufactured home in the 4400 block of Bowling Street SW. Firefighters said the man who lived in the home was able to escape with minor injuries, but a dog died in the blaze.

A candle is believed to have started the fire and the home was void of smoke detectors, the fire department said.

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In the days after the fire, firefighters canvassed the neighborhood around the home and found that four nearby homes did not have smoke detectors and a fifth home had a smoke detector that was non-functioning.

“Properly installed smoke detectors reduce the probability of death by fire by more than 50 percent,” Cowdin said. “You basically have three minutes or less to get out of a burning building, and that window shrinks every year with the changing use of building materials and the many chemicals that can be used to treat furniture and surfaces within the structure. So smoke detectors really can mean the difference between life and death during a fire.”

In 2017, according to data from the State Fire Marshal Division, there were 56 fire deaths in Iowa, including seven children. Of those, 44 people died in residential fires, with 18 of those deaths in homes with either no or nonworking smoke detectors.

This year, as of Nov. 7, the data shows there have been 31 fire deaths in the state, including five children. Twenty-one of those deaths were in residences and 11 of those victims died in homes that were without or had nonworking smoke detectors.

Most fatal fires occur between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. in Cedar Rapids, when people generally are sleeping, Cowdin said. And a majority of residential fires in the city are the result of unattended cooking. During the colder months and holiday season, the increased and improper use of space heaters, fireplaces and candles can create added risk of fires, Cowdin said.

Nationally, Christmas is the peak day of the year for residential candle fires, and Thanksgiving is the No. 1 day for cooking fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

“This is the time of year when we see more residential fire activity,” said Julie Popelka, a Cedar Rapids firefighter/paramedic. “And having smoke detectors in the home can greatly reduce the risk of injury or death.”

Smoke detectors have an expiration date of 10 years from the manufacture date. And after that 10 years, the light may still blink and the smoke alarm may still beep when you test it, but the sensor inside the device is likely not able to do its job anymore.

The manufacture date can be found on the underside of the device where it attaches to the ceiling.

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Popelka said the city’s fire-safety code calls for the installation of dual-sensor detectors, which are equipped with an ionization sensor and a photoelectric eye, that will detect both a smoldering, slow moving blaze and a fast-burning one.

“You should have smoke detectors in every sleeping room, one outside the sleeping areas and then one on each floor,” Popelka said, adding it is not recommended that detectors be installed in the kitchen or bathroom.

“A lot of the houses we’ve checked so far didn’t have any smoke detectors,” she added. “I remember one of the first houses we went into, it was in the southeast quadrant and there were multiple generations living in this huge house — it must have had about five bedrooms — and we installed eight or nine smoke detectors in that house.

“Doing this — providing these smoke detectors — you really feel like you’re making a difference and you know that you are essentially saving lives,” Popelka continued. “And I truly believe that it is only a matter of time before we can say that one of these smoke detectors that we’ve installed has saved a life.”

Cedar Rapids residents with questions about fire prevention, safety inspections or smoke detector installation can contact the fire department at 319-286-5166.

l Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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