- The Washington Times - Monday, July 5, 2004

BALTIMORE — Walking past the burned-out shell of a row house is a reminder for Shantee Hall and her 6-year-old daughter that they should make a plan for getting out of their new home if there is a fire.

Miss Hall and her daughter, Adrian Bridgers, just moved to the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood where the scarred row house sits in the middle of a block on South Monroe Street. Miss Hall said they recently heard about the January fire that killed brothers Tyrone Hammond, 18, and Kevin Smith, 7, as well as their 5-year-old niece Jasmine Wells. The boys’ mother escaped by jumping from a second-floor window.

The windows are now boarded up. Dozens of messages written on the melted blue siding are beginning to fade. “Dear God, why did you take them?” one reads.

“People need to take more precautions,” Miss Hall said.

She said her family had a smoke detector and an exit plan for their old home, but they don’t have either at their new place.

Firefighting agencies intend to reach families like Miss Hall’s with a new nationwide campaign to prevent deaths. It was prompted by a new Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data from 1989 to 1998, which found fires are the No. 1 cause of unintentional death for black children nationwide under the age of 5.

The analysis determined that black children under 5 in Maryland were four times as likely to die in a house fire than the rest of the state’s black population, a rate that was the highest in the United States. Only Illinois matched that rate.

Nationwide, black babies and toddlers are more than 2 times as likely to die in a residential fire than the rest of the black population, according to the report. The rate drops slightly for children of all races who are younger than 5 to more than twice the rest of the nation’s population.

The Baltimore Fire Department had a record of installing a smoke detector in the Hammond house in the months before the fire, but investigators could not find it afterward, said department spokesman Kevin Cartwright.

Smoke-detector installation, having an escape plan and keeping matches away from children are the focus of the awareness campaign, said Johnny Brewington, a Cleveland firefighter who is president of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters.

While the analysis focused on black children, Mr. Brewington said people of all races who live in poverty are at risk because smoke alarms are less prevalent in their homes.

“Most people think this could never happen to them,” he said. “It could happen, and there are solutions to either eliminating or minimizing this problem.”

FEMA is distributing public service announcements to newspapers and magazines across the country that target minority readers. A photo of a girl in a crib is captioned, “Love alone didn’t save her, practicing fire safety did.”

Mr. Brewington said he also is talking with fire chiefs in areas with significant black populations about making face-to-face contact with residents to get the point across.

A rash of fatal fires involving children early this year in Baltimore prompted city firefighters and others across the state to renew their safety efforts. They began a smoke-alarm distribution blitz this spring in poor neighborhoods.

“It was apparent how uneducated our community was about fire safety,” Mr. Cartwright said, adding that nine of Baltimore’s 26 fire fatalities this year have been children.

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