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Montgomery officials aim to stop senior deaths in fires

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Montgomery County officials yesterday released a report aimed at preventing fire casualties among senior citizens, citing an "epidemic" of fire-related deaths among older residents.

"We simply have too many of our citizens in Montgomery County dying needlessly [from fires]. ... This must stop," County Executive Isiah "Ike" Leggett said at a press conference outside the charred home of an elderly Kensington couple who died in a fire last month.

The report, prepared by the county's Senior Citizen Fire Safety Task Force, recommends 30 short-term and long-term plans for reducing fire risks for senior citizens.

Immediate recommendations include creating a fire-safety training position and ensuring that senior residents with hearing or vision problems acquire proper smoke-alerting devices.

Long-term recommendations include requiring all apartment complexes to install sprinklers and increasing the county fire department's budget to meet the needs of a growing population of senior citizens.

Mr. Leggett, a Democrat, said the county's senior-citizen population is expected to increase by at least 15 percent in the next four years. Seniors now reside in 21 percent of county homes.

The Senior Citizen Fire Safety Task Force, which was formed last year, has 26 members and has met at least once a month since July.

Task Force Chairman Paul Thomas stressed that as residents get older, they need to rely more on fire-safety devices that compensate for their diminished vision and hearing.

In addition, seniors and those who help them need to be taught fire-safety practices, he added.

County Council member Phil Andrews, Gaithersburg Democrat and chairman of the public safety committee, emphasized the importance of sprinklers.

All new apartment buildings in the county are required to have sprinklers, he said, but many older ones do not have them.

Mr. Andrews said apartment owners and homeowners can receive a tax credit for retrofitting with sprinklers. Combined with smoke detectors, they reduce by 82 percent the risk of a fire resulting in a death, according to the report.

According to a press release, 14 of the county's 15 fatal fires over the past four years have affected residents older than 65.

On May 7, Osker Craig Reynolds, 88, and Patricia Reynolds, 84, died in a devastating fire in their 108-year-old Victorian home on Baltimore Street in Kensington.

Firefighters found Mr. Reynolds outside the back door. It appeared that he had been trying to help his wife leave the house. Mrs. Reynolds was found in her wheelchair in the kitchen.

@$: "They never, ever fought. They loved each other all the days of their life," their son, David Reynolds of Monrovia, Md., said just hours after the fire.

Fire Chief Thomas W. Carr Jr. said that senior residents account for more than 50 percent of the county's fire-related deaths over the past seven years. The national average is 34 percent.

However, Montgomery County is not unique.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, more than 1,200 Americans over 65 die from fires each year. Adults 65 to 75 have a fire-related death rate twice the national average, those 75 to 85 have a rate three times the national average, and those over 85 have a rate four times the national average.