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Fire officials go extra mile with detectors

Bernice Bryant gave her husband an extra Valentine's Day present Tuesday, and she didn't have to pay a thing.

Because of Clearwater Fire and Rescue's smoke detector program, all she had to do was call.

When a neighbor's house caught fire during the Christmas holidays, it got Mrs. Bryant thinking. She and her husband Kevin, 48, had one smoke detector in the home where he had lived since 1984.

But Mrs. Bryant, 46, thought that might not be enough. A friend told her she should call the fire department for advice. She did, hoping she could get some information about smoke detectors.

"I called (Clearwater Assistant Fire Marshal) Steve Strong and asked, "Where do I need to go to pick it up?' And he said, "Oh no, we're coming to you,' " she said.

On Tuesday, an education specialist, fire inspector and three firefighters made a special call - with fire engine and all - to install the Bryants' new smoke detector.

Clearwater firefighters made a special trip for the Bryants because they brought out a special smoke detector that included a strobe light that could give Kevin Bryant, who is hearing-impaired, a visual warning.

Clearwater firefighters don't get many calls for the special, more expensive smoke detectors for hearing-impaired residents, Strong said. The Bryants' request was the first that the city had received in three years. But Strong said he hopes to put money in future budgets to buy some to have on hand.

More generally, local fire departments are eager to provide regular smoke detectors to residents who need them. In Clearwater, residents who need a smoke detector typically call, and the fire department tells them to come in and pick one up, Strong said.

The home fire death rate has been reduced by half since smoke detectors became available to the public in the 1970s, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Most states have laws requiring them in residential dwellings. Smoke alarms fail most often because of missing, disconnected or dead batteries.

"Just one smoke alarm doubles your chances of getting out during a fire," said Michelle Bengivengo, public education specialist for Palm Harbor Fire Department, who was along with the Clearwater department.

"The main thing is keeping those batteries fresh," Bengivengo said. "Ninety percent of people have smoke detectors, but they don't test them enough."

She recommends changing them on a schedule.

Tarpon Springs Fire Rescue also provides smoke detectors year-round. The fire department has an aggressive program around Christmas when firefighters spend two weeks going door to door with safety information pertinent to the holidays, said Tarpon Springs Fire Marshal Rick Butcher. Last season, Tarpon Springs gave at least 100 smoke detectors to the public that it funds both through the department and with a grant from the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes. These are provided to anyone, regardless of financial need.

"A lot of people feel silly calling the department and asking questions, but since we're in their living room, they're more likely to ask," Butcher said. Common questions include: Do I need a smoke detector in the kitchen? (No, not directly, because making toast or cooking other foods could set it off too frequently). Do I need a smoke detector in or outside of the bedroom? (Both. He also recommends that children and other residents sleep with the door closed so that they are protected from anything that might occur in the rest of the house.)

Jeanine Mayo, fire education specialist for the Largo Fire Department, speaks at mobile home parks during snowbird season. Largo provides safety checks to uncover home fire hazards, such as curtains too close to outlets, furniture pushed tightly against cords, or closet lights where the string rests on the hot bulb.

Some of firefighters' best advertisements for fire safety and smoke detectors are just kids. In many homes, children play a large part of fire safety, because they are often taught fire safety at school during safety programs, the Great American Teach-In or field trips to Safety Village.

"Kids have powers on their parents," Bengivengo said. "I tell them, "Go home and remind your mother to press the button on the smoke detector and test it.' They need to play an active part."

Older residents many times are not aware of the new laws and recommendations.

"A lot of older people learned to put a wet cloth over their mouth," Bengivengo said. "But now the recommendation is to get out! That's the first and foremost rule."

FIRE DEPARTMENTS

PROVIDING SMOKE DETECTORS

Clearwater: (727) 562-4334

Largo: (727) 587-6777.

Oldsmar: (813) 749-1200 (if there's a financial need).

Palm Harbor: (727) 787-5974.

Tarpon Springs: (727) 938-3737.

Safety Harbor: (727) 724-1520.

Pinellas Park: (727) 541-0713.

Seminole: (727) 393-8791.

SMOKE ALARM TIPS

+ Install smoke alarms on every level of your home, including the basement, making sure that there is an alarm outside every separate sleeping area. New homes are required to have a smoke alarm in every sleeping room and all smoke alarms must be interconnected.

+ Mount smoke alarms high on walls or ceilings (remember, smoke rises). Ceiling-mounted alarms should be installed at least 4 inches away from the nearest wall; wall-mounted alarms should be installed 4 to 12 inches away from the ceiling.

+ If you have ceilings that are pitched, install the alarm near the ceiling's highest point. Don't install smoke alarms near windows, doors, or ducts where drafts might interfere with their operation.

+ Never paint smoke alarms. Paint, stickers or other decorations could keep the alarms from working.

+ Test your smoke alarms once a month, following the manufacturer's instructions.

+ Replace the batteries in your smoke alarm once a year, or as soon as the alarm "chirps," warning that the battery is low. Hint: schedule battery replacements for the same day you change your clocks from daylight saving time to standard time in the fall.

+ Never "borrow" a battery from a smoke alarm. Smoke alarms can't warn you of fire if their batteries are missing or have been disconnected.

+ Don't disable smoke alarms even temporarily. If your smoke alarm is sounding "nuisance alarms," try relocating it farther from kitchens or bathrooms, where cooking fumes and steam can cause the alarm to sound.

+ Smoke alarms don't last forever. Replace yours once every 10 years. If you can't remember how old the alarm is, then it's probably time for a new one.

+ Plan regular fire drills to ensure that everyone knows exactly what to do when the smoke alarm sounds. Hold a drill at night to make sure that sleeping family members awaken at the sound of the alarm. Some studies have shown that some children may not awaken to the sound of the smoke alarm. Know what your child will do before a fire occurs.

Source: National Fire Protection Association.

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