For immigrants, home can be a fire hazard

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 14, 2012 - 11:30 PM

Area fire departments teach those unfamiliar with American housing how to be safe.

Safety educator Becky Booker talked with Mariela Jorge about the importance of keeping her furnace filter clean.

Photo: Maria Baca, Star Tribune

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A St. Paul cooking fire a few years ago was ignited by a propane burner -- used to cook eggrolls -- that residents had left unattended indoors. It destroyed the home's kitchen and the living room. Luckily, the family escaped.

It was not the only time when immigrants, new to the Twin Cities area and to the country, have been endangered by a lack of understanding of American homes and systems.

In another case, incense poked into nail holes as part of a house blessing fell into a wall cavity and started a fire.

In other instances, well-meaning cooks have lit wood inside their kitchen ranges.

Dispatchers and firefighters have reported miscommunications, mistrust or misuse of emergency services.

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety does not track house fires by occupants' ethnicity. And fire is a universal danger. But there's a growing sense that people freshly arrived from other parts of the world can bring a special set of challenges as they get settled in U.S. homes, where they often have no experience with gas ranges, electrical systems, central heat or wood-frame construction.

"Take a step back and look at it," said Becki White, fire and life safety educator for the Minnesota Fire Marshal's office. "They're coming to a new way of life. Not only do they face a new language and a new way of doing things, but they're trying to fit their cultures and their traditions into our box."

Minneapolis and St. Paul are among cities that have active adult education programs; Richfield is enlisting kids to teach safety to their parents. The National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md., now offers a course on "Cultural Competence in Risk Reduction."

Becky Booker, life and safety educator for the Spring Lake Park-Blaine-Mounds View Fire Department, was among the first to complete that course last winter. These days, Booker, a national leader in the effort to promote fire safety among immigrant communities, does outreach at English and GED classes.

She's spoken nationally on the subject. Last spring, she organized a multicultural safety summit, which brought prevention experts to speak to immigrant communities. On Tuesday, the department will host a second summit, making immigrant leaders available to offer insight to and answer questions from firefighters and prevention specialists.

Hunting for hazards

She also works on a more personal scale.

On Wednesday, armed with a flashlight and keen eyes, Booker led a tour of the Mounds View mobile home that Mariela Jorge and her family have inhabited for three months. Several electrical outlets needed to be secured and covered. An outdoor light cover was partially melted, a sign of overheating. The aging furnace and the dryer badly needed to be cleaned. Booker scratched up a handful of lint. Fuel, she said.

In the United States, the leading causes of house fires include unattended cooking, faulty dryers and electrical systems, and smoking.

In Jorge's native Mexico, she said, her experience was that many families cook outside or in detached kitchens. They hang their clothes to dry and rely less on electricity, and few people smoke indoors.

The result: She didn't know of anybody in Mexico whose home had burned.

Her new home had no working smoke detectors and no carbon monoxide detector. Booker helped her install both.

Jorge looked overwhelmed during parts of the tour.

"It's not the money; it's all the stuff you're not thinking about," she said. "You don't think much about your own safety."

In St. Paul, education specialist Elizabeth Larkin tells firefighters to try to help people apply new thinking to old traditions. Consider the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead, coming in November.

"Firefighters and inspectors go into homes and apartments and see shrines set up," she said. She tells them to "be sure to remind people to use candles safely and keep them out of range of children. Don't let them pile up, use votives and glass jars and make sure they're on a sturdy surface."

In Richfield, some of the fire safety education is focused on kids, as part of the Richfield Police and Fire Teen Academy. Community Liaison Amy Dusek oversees the program as part of the Hennepin County Joint Community Police Partnership.

"Maybe this will foster conversations with their family members," she said, "especially family members for whom this is a new concept."

Education can be a luxury

Of course, there are places where leaders recognize the problem, but lack the resources to address it.

Like his colleagues, Columbia Heights Fire Chief Gary Gorman sees a basic lack of understanding of how American homes work.

"Columbia Heights is a very, very diverse community, but with all the tight budgets and cutbacks, public education is probably the one thing that ends up being a low priority," he said. "Every city's different, and we don't have the kind of time and staffing to do that."

Back in Mounds View, Booker reassured Jorge.

"Here's my hope," she said, "that you don't find these things out the hard way."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409

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  • During an examination of Jorge‚Äôs home, Booker found several outlets that needed to be secured and covered. Faulty electrical systems are among the leading causes of house fires in the United States.

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