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NIH Record

Gaithersburg Tragedy Highlights Fire Safety

By Josť Alvarado

On the Front Page...

Two minutes is all it takes for a house fire to get out of control and kill.

That's what NIH fire prevention authorities want to emphasize to NIH'ers who may think of a fire in their house as a remote possibility. Simple but vital measures can prevent tragedies like the one that claimed the lives of two boys in a Gaithersburg home last month, say fire prevention section (FPS) officials.


In the Gaithersburg fire, a smoke detector that did not go off was a factor that led to the boys' deaths and left three others severely burned. The blaze engulfed the basement of the house where the youngsters had been enjoying an impromptu sleepover. Earlier in the evening, a thunderstorm had knocked out power to the home, so the boys lit a candle and spent the night playing card games. But as they fell asleep, the candle apparently fell from its glass holder and ignited a nearby bookshelf. The smoke detector was disabled because it needed the house's electrical system to operate. By the time the parents and sisters of three of the boys who lived in the house awoke and managed to get out, the basement had turned into a fiery death trap -- a "mass casualty" in the words of firefighters.

That tragedy was on the minds of many NIH'ers who visited the FPS's booth at the NIH Health Fair last month. Most questions centered on the use and maintenance of smoke detectors.

FPS officials, in turn, are concerned about the public's indifference to fire safety and misconceptions about fire, as revealed by a recent National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) survey. Besides believing that fire is not a major risk in their lives, 58 percent of respondents said they believed they had more than 2 minutes to escape a home fire, including 24 percent who indicated they assumed they have 10 minutes or more before life-threatening conditions develop. In fact, according to the NFPA, a typical living room fire can become deadly in 2 minutes or less after the smoke detector alarm sounds, and has the potential to kill household members in as little as 4½ minutes after it begins.

That's why smoke detectors are a first line of defense when escaping from a fire. Time becomes a precious resource as soon as the first flames get started. "In less than 2 minutes, most house fires get to a point where they are extremely hazardous," said J. P. McCabe, chief of FPS and a fire protection engineer. "If you have smoke detectors that are working properly, they normally go off prior to that 2-minute interval. It's an early warning device."

Every 74 seconds a home burns in the United States and thousands of people die each year in homes in which no smoke detectors are present. Although in the nation 93 percent of all homes have at least one smoke detector, almost 50 percent of all home fires and 60 percent of home fire deaths occur in the 7 percent with no smoke detectors, according to statistics provided by NIH's Division of Public Safety, Office of Research Services. Moreover, the NFPA says that the majority of fatal home fires happen at night when people are asleep. And contrary to popular belief, the smell of smoke may not wake a sleeping person, since the poisonous gases and smoke produced by a fire can numb the senses and put you into a deeper sleep. The NFPA says that the chances of a loss of life are cut in half in homes where a smoke detector is installed.

Joan Landicho, an NIH fire inspector, pointed out that smoke detectors for persons who are deaf or hard of hearing are also available. "They have a strobe light with high candle power that would grab your attention. When deaf people are sleeping, it's enough to wake them up," she said.

But a disabled smoke detector can be as bad as having none at all. NIH Fire Inspector Dan Walther says the surest way to go is getting a smoke detector that is both powered by house current and run on batteries. "What we are talking about is a hard-wired smoke detector with a battery backup. If they had these in Gaithersburg, the victims would probably still be alive today. You can get the detectors with this combination at any hardware store for as little as $20," he said. Landicho remarked, "You can't even put a price on life."

Like with all household appliances, smoke detectors have a given lifetime and need occasional inspection and maintenance. FPS officials recommend that smoke detectors have battery backups and that the detectors be replaced every 10 years. McCabe strongly advises that the batteries on a smoke detector be replaced at least twice a year. "When you change your clocks forward and back, in the spring and the fall, that's the time to also change the batteries in your smoke detectors," he said. FPS officials also underlined the importance of frequently pressing the test button of a smoke detector to ensure that it works. At a minimum, they should be tested each month.

McCabe was particularly disturbed by the NFPA survey's finding that 81 percent of respondents who had smoke detectors activate in their homes assumed it was a nuisance alarm. He was further alarmed by the fact that 22 percent disable their detector. "In 9 times out of 10 it's an avoidable issue when it comes to serious injury or loss of life," he said. "It's as simple as having a properly functioning smoke detector installed where it should be. The NFPA recommends that you install one in every level of your home, preferably outside of sleeping areas."

McCabe also advised homeowners to consider installing an automatic sprinkler system for their home and to buy fire extinguishers. Walther said that many local fire departments do fire safety inspections in the homes, and some even provide smoke detectors.

FPS officials are available for conferences and training sessions at their office in Bldg. 15G-2, located at 5202 West Cedar Lane, or at any IC location. For information, call 496-0487.

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