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Wichita fire data: Having smoke alarm only part of safety equation

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, Dec. 6, 2013, at 7:55 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Jan. 5, 2014, at 8:08 a.m.

Smoke-alarm law

A city ordinance spells out required alarm locations:

“In dwellings, smoke alarms shall be mounted on the ceiling or wall at a point centrally located in the corridor or area giving access to each separate sleeping area. Where bedrooms are on an upper level, the alarm shall be placed directly above the stairway. In dwellings with split levels, an alarm need only be installed on the upper level provided the lower level is less than one full story below the upper level, except that if there is a door between levels an alarm is required to be installed on each level. Dwellings having a stairway which opens from the basement shall have an alarm installed in the basement.”

Wichita has suffered 52 fire deaths since 2006, and in most of those incidents, a smoke alarm was present.

The problem is, in most of the cases, the smoke alarm wasn’t working, Wichita Fire Department data shows. At least investigators couldn’t verify through witnesses that it had activated. Because fire alarms can survive fairly far into a fire, firefighters can sometimes tell if the alarm activated because they can hear it when they arrive, Fire Marshal Brad Crisp said.

In the wake of four recent deaths in an east-side mobile home fire where there was no working alarm, Crisp said it’s important for people to not only have a smoke alarm but to also check it and maintain it. A resident who escaped the recent fire said there were two alarms in the home and that one of them might have been tested.

In Wichita, smoke alarms are required in new and existing homes, and owners and tenants share responsibility for their presence and maintenance.

In an e-mail Friday, Crisp said: “I think Battalion Chief (Robert) Thompson made a great analogy on smoke alarms last week when he said to think of a smoke alarm as a utility … you would not live in your home if you did not have water, electricity or gas, so why would you live in a home without a smoke alarm? You can quote us on that!”

Later Crisp added, “Smoke alarms buy you time.”

In most of the fatal fires since 2006, when the Fire Department starting tracking whether alarms were present and working, the alarm had become inoperable for a variety of reasons, often because a resident took it down, didn’t maintain it or removed the batteries, Crisp said.

This year, including the Nov. 26 fire on North Goebel that killed four, including two small children, there have been 10 fire deaths. That number is about double the average until this year, Crisp said. With the four deaths in the latest fatal fire, the annual average of deaths is up to about 6.5, he said.

This year, the Fire Department has found an alarm present in five of the seven fatal incidents. Investigators could verify that the alarm was working in only two of the incidents. In one of the incidents, the alarm helped alert an occupant.

In that fire, 96-year-old Esther Cohoon suffered fatal burns after her robe touched the gas burner on her kitchen range on North Wellington Place. The smoke alarm awakened her grandson, and if he had not heard it, it’s possible he might not have survived, Crisp said.

Although the city tracks the number of instances in fatal fires in which an alarm helps alert the occupants, that fact often can’t be determined because the person is living alone and has died, he noted.

As for the whole city, “We do not have any idea how many homes do not have working smoke alarms,” Crisp said in his e-mail.

In 2012, the year the city started a smoke alarm assistance program, Fire Department employees installed 182 smoke alarms and 92 so far this year, he said. The program’s workers have installed about 200 batteries since 2012.

Since the Nov. 26 fire that killed the four, the program has received 147 requests for smoke alarms, Crisp said.

Firefighters have gone door to door in the neighborhood where the recent fire occurred, near Central and Webb, to share information about the fire, give prevention tips, do safety checks and offer assistance with smoke alarms or batteries.

The city and local businesses have become partners in the smoke alarm program. The businesses or agencies include Scholfield Auto Group, Interstate All Pack Batteries, Safe Kids and SimplexGrinnell. Since the latest fatal fire, other businesses, including Shelter Insurance, have offered to help with the program, Crisp said.

A city ordinance requires smoke alarms. More specifically, all homes built after 1976 have been required to have smoke alarms upon completion, Crisp said. Since 1994, homes have been required to be “hardwired to the house electrical system with a backup battery,” he said.

The ordinance says it’s the responsibility of the owner to “provide and install approved smoke alarms, in full operating condition, in every new and existing residential occupancy.” The owner is responsible for “repair or replacement of smoke alarms in seven days upon written notification from the tenant, of alarm malfunction or defective operation.”

Tenants also share some responsibility, besides notifying the owner of a problem, under the ordinance. “Tenants of residential occupancies, except hotels and motels, shall be responsible for regular maintenance and testing of smoke alarms, following the written instructions provided by the owner.” What that means, Crisp said, is they need to keep fresh batteries in the alarms and push the test button to make sure they are working.

The Fire Department recommends replacing batteries twice a year and testing monthly.

The ordinance prohibits the tenant or owner from removing or making a smoke alarm inoperable.

Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or tpotter@wichitaeagle.com.

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