Firefighters focused on safety

Jeremy Styron-News-Herald

With Tennessee consistently ranking among the highest in the nation in fire deaths each year, local officials are sounding the alarm on early detection as a critical step in saving lives as cold weather and the holidays approach.

Michael Hodge, assistant chief with Loudon County Fire and Rescue, said the common perception that more fires occur during fall and winter months is grounded in some truth, as residents typically cook more than normal and install Christmas trees in their homes that could dry out and become fire hazards.

"There are people that still use live trees, and if people don't keep them watered regularly, they start to dry out, and you've got lights and everything on them that heats up," Hodge said. "It can create a fire, but over the last several years, there has been a decline in fires over the holidays, so I think some of the fire prevention techniques that we have been using have been working or appear to be working."

Fire and Rescue, along with the Loudon and Lenoir City fire departments, teach prevention techniques to children throughout the school year and routinely alert residents about the importance of switching out fire alarm batteries twice per year when the time changes, Hodge said. Fire departments also teach prevention at churches by request.

"We do fire prevention through the school systems teaching the kids, 'Hey, talk to your parents about doing fire escape drills'," Hodge said. "... We reiterate to them that they need to practice those at least twice a year every time you change your batteries, practice your exit drills in the home."

Fire officials use the acronym EDITH, exit drills in the home, to remind students and parents to have a plan of action.

"That is a major part of fire prevention, teaching exit drills and making sure people (know) about smoke alarms and the effectiveness of how they save lives," Hodge said.

Fire departments in the county have free fire alarms available for residents. Fire officials will install the detectors for free as well.

"The first warning system for a fire is your smoke alarms, before somebody calls 911, before our dispatch gets it, before we get it," Hodge said. "If you don't have a smoke alarm to tell you something's wrong, the chances of you actually getting out alive drop drastically."

Mike Brubaker, chief with the Loudon Fire Department, said his department is at or below average in fire calls so far in 2013, noting that an increase in fire alarm distribution has contributed to the positive trend. He said the last major injury resulting from a residential fire was more than five years ago.

"One thing that is still alarming for us is Tennessee traditionally ranks in the top five or 10 in the nation with civilian fire deaths," Brubaker said. "That's statewide, but that is one of the things that's alarming for us as fire chiefs. We have a statewide fire chiefs organization, and we meet to try and find ways to mitigate that, and the smoke alarms is one thing we've been doing, awareness, fire prevention, education."

According to the most recent data available from the U.S. Fire Administration, Tennessee's fire death rate was 21.7 deaths per million, which is a little less than twice the national rate and the sixth highest in the nation, which includes Washington, D.C.

In 2012, 84 fire deaths occurred in the state, and 72 have occurred so far in 2013, according to Katelyn Abernathy, with the State Fire Marshal's office. The state saw more than 100 deaths in 2010.

"We've have that classification over the past many years, and we don't like it," Richard Martin, Lenoir City fire chief, said. "Education is key to all of it obviously, but then you have to back that up with working smoke detectors. That's it in a nutshell. You educate, and you install early warning devices to help the situation. I mean that's the bottom line."

Lenoir City currently has between 40-50 free fire alarms available for residents, Martin said.

"Of course, the problem that incurs is people don't know whether they live in the city or the county," Martin said. "They just know they live in Lenoir City, but (regardless) if they call, we'll make the right contacts to make sure somebody gets a smoke detector, so that's not an issue."

Like Brubaker, Martin also reported a lower number of fire cases this year, noting that he expects a total call volume of between 1,300-1,400 by the end of the year, most of which are medical in nature. Loudon Fire Department has taken about 860 total calls in 2013, and the call volume in 2012 totaled 1,031.

Martin said he hoped the various teaching methods fire officials are currently using to educate children and the public about safety and prevention would continue to lower fire occurrences.

"That's what we hope to think, and honestly the more working smoke detectors you have out there the better chances are period because it's early detection," Martin said. "You get that early detection, you find out something's going on, you can call 911 sooner, get your family out of the house sooner. It's just good all the way around. It's a win-win."