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Fighting Fire with Smoke ... Alarms

Firefighters distribute free smoke detectors at local mobile home park.

Catherine Terry had wanted to replace the smoke detector in her home, but she had problems putting it on the wall. So when firefighters came by her house offering to install a new smoke detector, Terry was thrilled.

"I think this is great," said the Fairfax resident.

Terry was one of many residents who benefited from free smoke alarms installed by members of area firefighter units on Saturday, April 17. Units with the City of Fairfax Fire and Rescue Services, the Fairfax Volunteer Fire Department and the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department walked door-to-door offering residents of the 152-unit Waples Mill Mobile Home Park to have their smoke detectors replaced with new smoke alarms equipped with lithium batteries. Since the batteries have a ten-year life span, residents would not need to replace their new smoke detectors until 2014.

The distribution is funded by the Get Alarmed, Virginia! grant program, sponsored by the Virginia Department of Health. The grant allows firefighter units to give away free detectors to populations where a house fire is more likely to occur, such as in mobile homes.

In the United States, 94 percent of households have fire alarms, as many as half of those households have fire alarms with dead or missing batteries. Within the 4,000 deaths that occur from house fires, about half of those occur in residences where there was no working smoke alarm.

In Fairfax City, 30 residential structure fires occurred in 2003, out of 40 fires overall. While a fire-related fatality has not occurred in the city since October 2000, estimated property damages in residential fires totaled $483,865.

To counter those statistics, Fairfax City's Fire and Rescue Department offers free smoke alarms and installation to those who call the department. But out of the 21,000 city residents and the several hundred county residents that the department serves, only about 12 people a month call the fire department for new smoke alarms.

Furthermore, the city's housing stock uses hardwired, or built-in, smoke detectors which, although they rely on electricity, should be checked regularly.

"There are a lot of very old detectors out there that aren't reliable," said Ed Clark, life safety officer with Fairfax City's Fire and Rescue.

As a result, Fire and Rescue Services reaches out to area populations on fire safety, such the distribution targeted to the trailer park located off of Lee Highway.

"I thought it was great, and the men were really nice. Very understanding, very courteous," said Millie Mitchell, assistant manager for the trailer park. "One of these mobile homes could cause a fire, and take out two, three, four or five of them."

Clark hoped Fire and Rescue Services could eventually go door-to-door to every city residence, offering free smoke alarm installation and fire prevention tips.

"We know there's a need for this service," Clark said.