BANGOR, Maine — Two sisters, ages 6 and 11, in March. A 30-year-old husband and father and his three children — ages 4, 8 and 9 — in November. And last month, two brothers described as best friends.
These are the eight people in Maine who died in 2012 in fires that occurred in homes that lacked working smoke detectors, according to the results of investigations by the State Fire Marshal’s Office.
The fires that claimed the lives of Natalie Hogan, 11, and Kelsey Hogan, 6, of Lisbon, Ben Johnson III and children Ben IV, Ryan and Leslie of Orrington, and Cris Davis, 49, of Milford and his brother Randy Davis, 47, of Orono were not isolated incidents.
And with the current cold snap and high fuel costs, struggling homeowners and renters will be turning to alternative heating sources, elevating the risk of fires. Most fire deaths in Maine occur in December, January and March.
Statistics provided by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) show that in 2011, home structure fires caused 84 percent of that year’s 3,005 civilian, or non-firefighter, fire deaths.
Fire deaths disproportionately affect older adults, who typically account for 32 to 40 percent of the total, according to the fire marshal’s office.
Cooking, especially unattended cooking and frying, was the No. 1 cause of house fires from 2006 to 2010, according to the NFPA. Smoking was the leading cause of house fire deaths over the same period.
From 2005 to 2009, nearly two thirds of home fire deaths resulted from fires in homes with no working smoke detectors. In 2010, the most recent year for which national data is available, the total was 62 percent, according to Richard Taylor, senior research and planning analyst for the State Fire Marshal’s Office, on Thursday.
The NFPA further noted that in 80 percent of the cases nationally in which smoke alarms failed to operate, the cause usually pointed to batteries that were missing, disconnected or dead.
Smoke alarms were absent in the Lisbon and Orono fires. State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas said that while a smoke detector was found in the rubble of the Orrington fire, the safety device lacked a battery.
Fire officials say the deaths could have been prevented had there been functioning smoke detectors in the homes.
“It’s crazy to think that for $20 [a typical cost for a smoke alarm], this might have been prevented,” Orrington Fire Chief Michael Spencer said this week.
On Wednesday, Spencer said the November fire in Orrington that left 31-year-old Christine Johnson the sole survivor — the deadliest in Maine since December 1992 — hit the community and his department hard.
Though it was not the first fatal fire in Orrington during Spencer’s tenure as fire chief, it was the first that involved children and the first that involved multiple victims, he said.
Among Spencer’s fears was that firefighters, who were mostly volunteers, would risk their lives knowing that a father and his children were inside the burning house. Afterward, the banter that firefighters sometimes engage in as a way of coping with tragedies was totally absent, he said.
“It was complete silence. You could have heard a pin drop,” said Spencer, who personally removed the bodies of the three children from the house to spare his firefighters the task.
Thomas said this week that because fire officials lack the statutory authority to enter private homes to make sure they are equipped with smoke detectors, his office is reaching out to those who do — including social workers, police and medical professionals — to make sure that the needed life-saving devices are present, despite the fact that Maine law does not require them in private homes.
He’s also applying for a roughly $225,000 grant from the U.S. Fire Administration to fuel a fire safety public education blitz.
“I’m tired of having to put people in body bags,” Fire Marshal Thomas said candidly during a telephone interview last month.
Veazie fire Capt. Peter Metcalf, who in the past has taught fire safety in Bangor and Orono and still does a lot of behind-the-scenes work, agrees.
“Working smoke alarms are really your first defense in knowing there’s a fire in your house. Whether it’s 3 o’clock in the morning or 2 o’clock in the afternoon, without that working smoke alarm, you may not know until it’s too late that there’s a fire in your home.”
According to estimates by the National Fire Protection Association and the U.S. Fire Administration, the use of smoke alarms in U.S. homes rose from less than 10 percent in 1975 to at least 95 percent in 2000, while the number of home fire deaths was cut nearly in half, the U.S. National Institute on Standards and Technology notes.
“Thus the home smoke alarm is credited as the greatest success story in fire safety in the last part of the 20th century, because it alone represented a highly effective fire safety technology with leverage on most of the fire death problem that went from only token usage to nearly universal usage in a remarkably short time,” the institute said.
While early alert to a fire can save lives when minutes matter, Metcalf said that having — and practicing — a family escape plan and designating a meeting place also are critical keys to surviving a house fire. Also important are to have chimneys and heating systems checked before each year’s home heating season gets under way, he said.
“Smoke disorients you. Where you thought things were is all changed around because you’re disoriented by the smoke. When families practice a home escape plan, it almost becomes routine. It becomes second nature.”
Taylor said that NFPA statistics show that nuisance alarms — namely those set off by cooking or steam — are the leading reasons why people remove the batteries from or disconnect smoke alarms. As a result, he said, one in every five homes in the United States lacks a functioning smoke alarm.
Metcalf agreed that this is a problem.
“We teach so much on smoke alarms and the need to change the batteries on a regular basis — change your clock, change your battery,” he said. “The downside is many times, people have nuisance alarms.
“So what’s the normal reaction? They turn the alarm off because they don’t want to bother anybody. They take the battery out, they forget [to replace it] and they go back to their routine, finishing supper or finishing up the kids’ baths or showers. You forget about the smoke alarm and if it’s battery-operated, it’s not going to work. And then you forget and then you go to bed and then you’re vulnerable. That’s when the risk happens.”
Metcalf and Spencer are among the Maine fire officials who say that neither cost nor lack of education should be deterrents to equipping homes with smoke alarms.
“There now are models that cost from $5 to $30 or $40, depending what kind you buy,” Spencer said. Some are equipped with a reset button that briefly disarms the alarm — without disconnecting the battery or electrical power — should they be inadvertently set off by cooking or bathing, he said.
“If a homeowner cannot afford a smoke alarm for whatever reason, they can always check with their local fire department to see what types of programs they offer. Many fire departments will keep smoke alarms on hand to help residents that are in need,” Metcalf added.
The tragic fire in Orrington prompted the Pine Tree Burn Foundation last month to donate $500 worth of smoke detectors to the Orrington Fire Department.
“One of the foundation’s missions is to provide assistance with fire and life safety material,” said President Janet Metcalf, who is Pete Metcalf’s wife and a teacher, when the donation was made. “We felt this was an opportunity for our organization to assist this community with purchasing smoke alarms.”
The fire department now has a supply of detectors to give out to residents who cannot afford or do not otherwise have them.
Spencer said that since the fatal fire in Orrington, his department has been approached by residents who are taking the lesson learned to heart. Families have told him that they are checking their smoke detectors to make sure they are in working order and are practicing their escape plans.
He said the fire department this month is launching a monthly discussion on fire safety for interested residents.
Spencer said many fire departments, including Orrington’s, offer help with checking or installing detectors and reviewing escape plans. Homeowners and renters interested in such services should contact their local fire departments or town offices.
While fire officials do what they can to provide fire prevention and safety education, the final responsibility is in the hands of homeowners, Metcalf said.
“Tragedies such as Orrington and Orono will stick in people’s minds, especially those close to the families,” he said. But in some cases, only for so long.
“Over the next several days, several months, people will be diligent about remembering to check their smoke alarms, but as the months go on, we tend to get back into our normal routine and the hustle and bustle of everyday life. We forget about some of the small things that keep ourselves safe, like checking our smoke alarms.”