Great Fires Aren't Good

The actual theme of Fire Prevention Week for 2017 is Every Second Counts, Plan Two Ways Out. This is excellent advice, and you can find out more about it here:

However, I didn't plan two ways out, or even one way in, so I had nothing for Fire Prevention Week this year. Instead this is from the "Best of Slightly Off the Mark", which is a little silly because no newspaper is running Slightly Off the Mark at the moment. What isn't silly is fire prevention, which, you might be surprised to learn, is what Fire Prevention Week is about.


            The National Fire Prevention Association would like to point out that, if your smoke detector is not working, it won’t work.


            Sure, it seems obvious. But it’s also obvious that if sprinkler systems aren’t installed they don’t put out fires, safety belts that don’t get used aren’t safe, and people who stay in Washington, D.C. turn into blithering idiots. And yet we defeat sprinkler laws, don’t belt up, and reelect blithering idiots, so sometimes the obvious needs saying.


            This is why we have Fire Prevention Week, which is a week during which we try to stress preventing fires. Fire Prevention Week is always nearest October 9th. That’s the historical date of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which took place in 1871, was indeed in Chicago, but really wasn’t all that great.


            “Great” is a term used for fires that get so out of control that they get weeks named after them. The NFPA has devoted itself to keeping fires from turning great, and the best way to do that is to keep them from getting out of control. It’s counterintuitive, but they would not then be called “good”.


            More important is to keep people from getting killed in a fire, which is the job of smoke alarms, which are just like smoke detectors except with fewer syllables. A working smoke alarm cuts the risk of dying in a fire in half. You don’t have to be Captain Obvious to see the value of that.


            Here’s the fun part, though, and by “fun” I mean “tragic”: When talking smoke alarms, you always have to stick in the word “working”. In 23% of home fire deaths, there were smoke alarms—but they didn’t work. Why? Sometimes they were old or damaged, but usually the batteries were dead or missing.


            “Honey, the batteries in the camera are dead.”


            “I’ll just take some out of the smoke detector. Don’t worry, I’ll remember to put them back.”


            Sure you will. Stop at the dollar store and get more for the camera, you schmuck.


            But even if the batteries stay in, there’s no guarantee they’re working. Batteries go dead from time to time, and dead batteries lead to dead people.


            Thus the idea of changing them twice a year, when Daylight Savings Time comes and goes. Whine all you want about springing forward and falling back (and you will … you will), but it’s a great reminder to put in a good set of working batteries. If the old ones are still good and you’re particularly cheap, put those in your digital camera. Sure, there’s a chance they’ll go dead and you’ll miss catching that UFO hovering over your house ... but the little green men are going to steal your camera and make all the photos blurry anyway, so why bother?


            In between changes, you should test your smoke alarm batteries every month. This is about the same rate at which a major celebrity gets arrested. If you’re really paranoid you can check them every few days, at the rate a minor celebrity gets arrested.


            If the smoke alarm is more than ten years old, replace it. If you can’t remember how old it is, replace it. If you can’t remember how old you are, have someone else replace it. And yes, if it doesn’t work when you test it, replace it. Thank you, Captain Obvious.


            There was a time when experts recommended installing a smoke alarm on each level of the home and outside each sleeping area. They now say to install one inside each bedroom, in addition to the others. By my estimation that would mean five smoke alarms in my house. If you count every room my dog sleeps in, that would mean nine smoke alarms, or more if you count each spot as a separate bedroom.


            That may seem like a lot, but I’ve long had a suspicion that my dog smokes when we’re asleep. Have you ever seen hairballs burn? Not pretty.


            Can’t afford a smoke alarm? Yes you can. You, put down that beer. You, put down that cigarette. You, put down that game controller. And you, put down that—oh, man. Dude, close your curtains! I can’t unsee that.


            Yes, you can scrape up the money to save your life. I did a quick internet search, and found smoke alarms for sale ranging from twenty to less than five dollars. I wouldn’t necessarily go for the cheapest ones, but you can cover your entire home for less than the cost of that 32 inch flat screen TV you want to mount in your bathroom.


            On a related note, you do not need a flat screen TV in your bathroom. We’ll talk electrical safety in a future column.


 (Oh, and remember that sales of our book, Smoky Days and Sleepless Nights: A Century or So With the Albion Fire Department, go to the fire department's operational fund.)


Dino Manalis Added Oct 11, 2017 - 12:31pm
Fires are catastrophic, look at what's happening in California!
Lady Sekhmetnakt Added Oct 11, 2017 - 6:55pm
Great advice Mark. BTW aren't you a firefighter? 
opher goodwin Added Oct 11, 2017 - 7:30pm
Grenfell Towers kept coming to mind as I read it Mark. Fire is terrifying.
With all the California fires I am saddened by the poor creatures burned to death as much as anything else.
Mark Hunter Added Oct 12, 2017 - 12:49am
It's ironic that those fires got so bad during Fire Prevention Week, Dino. The foliage in California is amazing--as if it was designed specifically to burn.
Mark Hunter Added Oct 12, 2017 - 12:51am
Yes, I've been a volunteer firefighter for thirty-six years now, although I have to admit I'm slowing down now. I was an EMT with the local volunteer ambulance until they went full time, and a hazardous material technician, and my full time job for the last quarter of a century has been 911 dispatcher. It gives me plenty to write about, anyway.
Mark Hunter Added Oct 12, 2017 - 12:54am
A lot of death in California, opher ... of course, the Grenfell Towers were their own kind of awful, and an entirely different kind of firefighting.
Lady Sekhmetnakt Added Oct 12, 2017 - 1:40am
Thanks for answering my question. I have another. Have you ever seen the show Chicago Fire, Mark? It's one of my favorites, and I was just wondering how accurate it is regarding actual firefighting? I figure you are the person around here to ask. 
Mark Hunter Added Oct 12, 2017 - 2:55am
We watched the first three episodes, and I just couldn't take the soap opera. I'd like to see a show again like Emergency! that concentrated on the job, rather than the personal drama (although that show wasn't the most accurate in 
Mark Hunter Added Oct 12, 2017 - 3:05am
Ok, don't know what happened there ...
Anyway, I don't really recall the firefighting portion of Chicago Fire having much of an impact on me, which probably means it wasn't wildly inaccurate. But flash a fire truck in front of me and I'm like a cat seeing something shiny, so overall the show must have really turned me off.
Lady Sekhmetnakt Added Oct 12, 2017 - 3:29am
Well thanks for your comments Mark. I'm not sure why exactly I like the show, but to each his or her own. One thing I know is that I consider firefighters to be underrated heroes. Maybe because my own dad saved me and my brother from a house fire when we were young. He risked his own life to get us out and even managed to put out the fire by himself before the fire department arrived. He was burnt quite badly, but didn't even know until he got to the hospital. It was some time before he recovered from the 2nd and third degree burns, skin grafts and all. But he did recover to his full self, and has always been an inspiration for me along with the brave men and women who fight fires professionally. 
wsucram15 Added Oct 12, 2017 - 10:12am
Thanks for the Article Mark..I second the first comment by lady.
 Congrats on being a volunteer firefighter..much respect.   My neighbor is as well.  Keep up the good work and stay safe.
opher goodwin Added Oct 12, 2017 - 2:08pm
Yep - stay safe Mark - it is a terrifying dangerous job at times. I have a nephew in the fire service.
Mark Hunter Added Oct 12, 2017 - 3:35pm
Lady, your dad sounds like quite a guy! Maybe I’ll try Chicago Fire again if I get a chance: my new novel actually has a Chicago firefighter in it, so it could be research.
Mark Hunter Added Oct 12, 2017 - 3:39pm
Don’t worry everyone, I do my best to stay safe to the extent I can—I’m even my department’s safety officer. These day I’ve got some chronic back pain from an old fire injury, so I’m not as active as I used to be.
Mike Haluska Added Oct 12, 2017 - 4:04pm
Californians do some stupid things when it comes to the environment and it always comes back to bite them in the ass.  When the Forestry guys want to cut back trees to make a bare area to prevent the spread of fire, the environmental extremists file lawsuits to prevent it.  Residents spray fire retarding chemicals on vegetation that has "flammable" fluids and end up with a bunch of plants waiting to catch fire.  Planners want to build dams and reservoirs to conserve water and keep vegetation from drying out and being fire-prone, but the environmental extremists claim some newt or some shit will be endangered.
I feel badly for the innocent homeowners. 
John Minehan Added Oct 12, 2017 - 4:25pm
When I was in the Army, I was dragooned into fighting a couple of fires.  Always a daunting experience.
Mark Hunter Added Oct 12, 2017 - 8:40pm
I'm afraid you're right, Mike. And also, for reasons unknown they're heavily into using those highly flammable wood shake roofing materials ... a fault of the construction industry and their lobbyists.
Mark Hunter Added Oct 12, 2017 - 8:41pm
See, John, to me being in the Army would be a daunting experience!
Dave Volek Added Oct 13, 2017 - 2:49pm
Good writing Mark. I liked your use of humor to make your point.
Mark Hunter Added Oct 13, 2017 - 4:37pm
Thanks, Dave. Humor is all I’ve got!
Ari Silverstein Added Oct 16, 2017 - 2:30pm
In light of the quantity of homes that catch on fire with people in them and that are un-sprinklered (remember this isn't the 1800s anymore), its obvious smoke detectors are an unnecessary safety device.  With the money we save on smoke alarms, we should invest in something that might actually save a few lives. 
Mark Hunter Added Oct 17, 2017 - 1:01am
Smoke detectors save innumerable lives every year, by alerting people to fires and allowing them to escape. That doesn't mean we shouldn't be doing more--I've long advocated that all new construction of any kind should be fully sprinklered, for instance. But even with sprinklers, fires occasionally happen and sometimes, even if sprinklers control the spread of flames, smoke still fills the building. Sprinklers are not only a necessary safety device, but considering their modest price they're one of the cheapest safety devices you can get.