WARREN - Lt. Chuck Eggleston said he remembers all too well the day the deadliest blaze in the city's history hit the community just more than two years ago.
A fire at a Landsdowne Avenue N.W. residence killed six people on June 16, 2011. That prompted Eggleston and other Warren firefighters to initiate the SALSA (Save A Life Smoke Alarm) program last year. Efforts to get the program, which now provides smoke alarms for at-risk homes, up and running were intensified when a second fire claimed the lives of four people March 3, 2012 at an Austin Avenue N.W. residence.
Neither home contained a working smoke alarm.
"It was a devastating time. First to have such an extreme loss compounded by another within a year. We knew something had to be done to help people who needed it and we wanted to try to get something in place as soon as we could," Eggleston explained. He added that the most devastating fires often take place in the homes of low-income or elderly residents. The goal is to place smoke alarms in as many of those at-risk households throughout the city as possible.
The effort is a cooperative one between the city fire department and HandsOn Volunteer Network Coordinator Kristen Gallagher. Teams will spend much of this year's national Make A Difference day, set for Oct. 26, installing smoke alarms in dozens of homes. It will mark the third round of installations for the program.
For its efforts, the program recently won recognition from the ServeOhio Awards program for work done on Make A Difference Day in October 2012. Eggleston said the fire department hadn't had a comparable program in place since the 1980s. Eggleston and Gallagher plan to travel to Columbus to accept one of six Serve Ohio Awards at a ceremony Oct. 22.
The initiative uses donations from individuals and businesses to adopt families to receive free smoke alarms, to be installed by community volunteers.
Firefighters first identified the target homes, then solicited donations from individuals, businesses and organizations to purchase the smoke alarms. Volunteers installed the first group of units this summer.
Last summer, volunteers spent a day installing tamper-resistant smoke alarms that contain a power cell that will operate the detector for up to 10 years. The volunteers underwent installation training to help.
Applicants were chosen based on fire fatality statistics and need.
Gallagher explained that essentially the fire department gets the word out about the program, identifies households in need of and that qualify for it, distributes applications and makes sure those applications are returned. She said her program provides the volunteers.
"The fire department, because of liability issues, is not allowed to install them. So that's where we come in. We bring the fire department together with the volunteers. We rely on our volunteers because without them we wouldn't be able to make this happen," she said.
The fire department was able to secure a FEMA grant to help pay for the fire alarms. In the spring the program also benefited from from a $50,000 donation from BP, which is being used to provide supplies for the volunteers. Previously the volunteers were asked to bring their own tools.
The fire department also provides information on the best locations for the alarms to be installed and how to install them, a process he said is "pretty simple."
Last year volunteers installed 100 alarms.
Eggleston stressed that the applications are for residents not landlords. However, if a rental home does not have adequate, updated and working alarms, residents are still encouraged to fill out an application.
"We will take that up with the landlord later. Our primary goal is to save lives. Unfortunately people don't really think about smoke detectors until something happens," he said.
Eggleston said organizers put a lot of effort into the program. For example, they obtained alarms in which the batteries cannot be easily removed. He said efforts are underway to get the word out. A public service announcement for TV is set to be launched soon and another one for radio is in the works.
"A big part of what we're doing now is reminding people of the importance of having working fire alarms in the homes and letting them know they don't have to do without. It's important and it's not something that should be put off or delayed. There's an opportunity here for many people to take care of this and make their homes safer. It's not worth the risk. It's not worth taking chances with your safety especially when your lives, the lives of your families, your children are at risk."