- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 17, 2008

More than 70 fire department employees, recruits and volunteers from all over the District went door to door yesterday in Southeast installing smoke alarms as part of the department’s “smoke alarm blitz.”

Workers traveled in teams, asking residents if they had a smoke alarm — and, if not, whether they’d like one.

The effort reached more than 600 houses, according to Battalion Chief Kenneth Crosswhite.

The teams often discovered problems in houses besides a lack of a smoke alarm. One female resident complained of a strange smell in her house, which firefighters identified as a gas leak.

Another team discovered a large couch blocking a condominium’s staircase — a violation of D.C. fire code. They also found that, even in homes with smoke alarms, the alarms often needed replacement batteries.

“We run across problems all the time,” Chief Crosswhite said. He said Ward 8 was “one of the areas that definitely needs assistance.”

Less than half of D.C. homes have working smoke alarms, Chief Crosswhite said. Fire Chief Dennis Rubin said that puts residents in danger.

“We know that the presence of a working smoke alarm will increase your chance of surviving a fire in your home by 50 percent,” he said.

Deloress Banks, a retired mental health counselor, was one of about 450 Ward 8 residents who had a free smoke alarm installed.

Mrs. Banks, who has lived in her house since the 1950s, said she hadn’t really thought about her lack of smoke detectors before.

“I thought I had one up there. I just never looked up,” she said.

Fire officials have been installing smoke detectors in residents’ houses on the third Saturday of every month since July as part of an initiative to improve public safety in some of the District’s poorer neighborhoods.

The smoke detectors, described by Chief Crosswhite as “state-of-the art,” can detect smoke and carbon monoxide and cost about $30 apiece. Corporate sponsors cover the costs of the alarms, so residents receive them for free.

Between $7,200 and $7,400 in smoke detectors are installed during each Saturday blitz, Chief Crosswhite said.

Residents also could choose to receive a smoke alarm designed for children. The alarm, while only detecting smoke, allows a parents to record their voice on the device, using the sound of their voice as the alarm.

Last year there were 12 fire-related deaths in the District, Chief Crosswhite said. More than half of those occurred in houses without a working smoke alarm.

In January, Thelma Brown Lewis, 90, and her daughter, Ricarda Lewis Ingram, 55, died in a fire at their two-story rowhouse in the 5600 block of Kansas Avenue in Northwest. Investigators said there were no working smoke detectors in the house at the time.

“Our goal is to hit every house in the city to make sure there is a working smoke alarm,” Chief Crosswhite said.

Residents wanting a smoke alarm can contact the fire department at 202/727-1600, or visit its Web site fems.dc.gov.

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