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Smoke alarm program aims to help the vulnerable

Jennifer Yost  - Leslie Kelly
Jennifer Yost
— image credit: Leslie Kelly

Jennifer Yost knows the scenario. Someone overcooks dinner and the smoke alarm goes off. Frustrated, the smoke alarm gets detached by the homeowner and doesn’t get reassembled.

Or maybe it’s that moment when there’s a game or appliance that needs a 9-volt battery, so the one in the smoke alarm gets “borrowed” and is never returned.

“It happens,” Yost said. “It’s just so easy to whack it off the wall when it’s buzzing and never put it back together.”

Yost is a volunteer EMT with the Central Kitsap Fire & Rescue District. She’s also the coordinator of a life-saving program to get smoke alarms in the homes of some of the most vulnerable people in Kitsap County.

Through a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), there are 3,400 smoke alarms waiting to be installed in homes in Kitsap County. The program is administered through the Washington State Association of Fire Marshals and Yost is  working part time for the Kitsap County Chiefs Association' Fire and life safety division to get the word out.

The smoke alarms are available to anyone who needs them, Yost said, but the program is trying to get them in the homes of those who don’t have them, including the low income, the elderly, families with children under the age of 5, and the disabled.

“Those are the populations where we’ve seen higher incidents of fires and no smoke alarms,” Yost said. “These are the homes where, often, there are no working alarms.”

While building codes require smoke alarms, sometimes they aren’t working Yost said, or they’ve been neglected. This is an opportunity to correct that, and make the county more safe, she added.

Alarms are free, as is installation which will be done by local firefighters or volunteers who are trained through the program.

“That’s an important part,” Yost said. “We’ve seen times when smoke alarms are given away and people get them, but the alarms never get installed.”

Another reason for the installation is to guarantee that they are put in there proper locations.

“It used to be that they’d go in the kitchen and the bathrooms where they would often give off false alarms,” she said. “But we know now that the best place for them are in the bedrooms and just outside the bedrooms, in the hallways.”

That’s because the most deadly fires are those that start when people are sleeping, she said.

And there needs to be at least one smoke alarm on each level of the house including the basement.

Smoke alarms will be distributed as needed, not just one per home. The volunteers with the program will go into the home and access where the alarms should be placed and will then install them. The program also includes  a brief home safety assessment to identify potential fire hazards, education on how to prevent fires and assistance  in creating a home fire escape plan.

“Homeowners will be educated about simple things they can do, like sleeping with their bedroom doors shut, carbon-monoxide detectors and fire extinguisher use,” Yost said.

The alarms will be installed with a 10-year lithium battery and while new construction code requires alarms that are interconnected, Yost and others in the fire districts know that in older homes, the alarms often are not tied to each other and are not both electrical and battery operated. Such options will be discussed with the residents during the visits.

Another aspect of the program is the installation of special alarms for those who are deaf.

“This population has been underserved in the past,” she said. “These alarms are more expensive and neither the individuals or local fire departments have had the money for them.”

The alarms include a unit that sits on a bedside table and an attachment that is put on the mattress. When the smoke alarm goes off, the attachment will shake and vibrate the bed and the bedside unit will flash light.

“The deaf are very vulnerable to fire,” Yost said. “We are really excited to have this opportunity to provide them with alarms that cater to their needs.”

She’s working with audiology clinics and school district to identify potential candidates for these alarms.

While fire districts are providing some of the labor for the program, Yost is looking for service clubs and community groups who can help out. Volunteers are needed to go into targeted neighborhoods to pass out information about the program and to help with the installations.

“We’re planning on passing out information in some specific neighborhoods and then going back the next weekend and doing installations,” Yost said. “It’s just another way to get the word out.”

The programs also is looking for translators, including Spanish, Russian, Ukrainian and Filipino languages.

Typically, the smoke alarms like those that are being given away would cost  $20 to $30 with a good battery. Some units sell for more. Yost said the alarms will be distributed until they are gone on a first-come basis.

All fire districts in Kitsap County are participating in the program. If, when the alarms are all installed there is still more need, Yost said she’s hopeful the program will be continued.

“We’re just getting underway,” she said of the program. “So it’s important for people to let us know that they need alarms and know that we will be getting back with them soon.”

Information will be available on fire districts’ websites including www.ckfr.org, or by emailing Yost at jyost@ckfr.org, or call her at 360-447-3567.

 

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