The Red Cross, most often associated with its response to natural cataclysms, is now working harder than ever to prevent a commonplace deadly disaster: home fires.
Last year in Minnesota, 68 people died in home fires, the highest number of fatalities in 20 years, according to the State Fire Marshal’s office. The Red Cross Home Fire campaign aims to reduce that number by 25 percent, installing smoke detectors and trying to persuade families to develop fire escape plans.
“We respond to more than [one] disaster a day here in Minnesota, and that’s a home fire,” said Carrie Carlson-Guest, spokeswoman for the Red Cross Minnesota region. “Nationally, home fires are responsible for more deaths than all of the large-scale natural disasters combined.”
Volunteers are going door-to-door with drills and ladders, offering to install smoke detectors for free or helping people change the batteries in existing ones. So far, they’ve installed more than 16,000 statewide, each equipped with a lithium battery good for 10 years.
During those home visits, they’re also urging families to make and practice evacuation plans in time for the holidays, when people start cooking for Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas, and lighting candles for jack-o’-lanterns and menorahs.
Volunteers also are going into schools, helping kids decorate pillowcases to hold emergency kits and talking about what they should do if a fire breaks out at home.
Smoke detectors often don’t work, said Red Cross volunteer Dani Shimon, and “most people don’t have a plan. It’s low on their priority list.” Parents often assume their kids know what to do if fire breaks out, or feel that calling a family fire drill is silly.
That can be a fatal and heartbreaking mistake, Red Cross officials say.
“There is that misconception that you will call the fire department and they will come and save you. But people really need to have that plan in place to get out of their home in two minutes or less,” said Phil Hansen, CEO of the American Red Cross Minnesota Region.
Nationally, the Red Cross has counted 464 saves by its smoke alarms since its Home Fire campaign started in 2014.
The vast majority of the nearly 550 incidents that the Red Cross in Minnesota responded to last year were home fires. While the number of house fires has dropped since the 1970s, today’s building materials burn faster and create more intense smoke than homes built in the early and mid-20th century.
“Modern construction uses lightweight materials, lightweight tresses and vinyl siding. Everything in the home is made of petroleum products. Those fires burn much hotter and faster,” said Assistant Fire Chief Maddison Zikmund of the Spring Lake Park-Blaine-Mounds View Fire Department.
Carlson-Guest recalled speaking to one family about what they’d do if there was a fire. The youngest child responded, “I’d run into my bedroom and hide under my bed. Then I’d know I’d be safe.” The oldest child, a teen, said he’d get out and head to a friend’s house.
“My heart just sank,” Carlson-Guest said.
She said that families need to designate a meeting place in case of fire, even if it’s just the mailbox, so they can determine whether someone is missing. Kids need to know they have their parents’ permission to leave the home, day or night, if they hear the smoke alarm, she said.
The Red Cross’ reputation, its cadres of volunteers and its financial resources make it an invaluable partner with firefighters, Zikmund said. His department has expanded its prevention work, thanks to the Red Cross partnership.
“It’s not just a firefighter knocking on their door. This is supported by a national nonprofit that people know helps during disasters around the world,” Zikmund said.
And the work of the Red Cross in helping fire victims — literally standing by their side on the curb while firefighters battle the flames destroying their home — is also critical, he said.
“Comforting the families is not always a luxury fire departments, especially volunteer fire departments, have in those first hours. To be able to rely on them is phenomenal,” Zikmund said.
Retired principal Warren Buerkley and his wife, Deb, volunteer to install smoke detectors every Monday for the Red Cross. They respond to house fires, slipping on their Red Cross vests and comforting families with blankets, teddy bears, prepaid credit cards to pay for living expenses, and other assistance. To replace lost essentials, they can help people get medication refills, replacement eyeglasses and a new driver’s license.
People “are so grateful that there are resources to support and help them,” said Buerkley, adding that he takes pride in knowing that people see his vest and look to him to help.
The Red Cross helped roommates Angel Sanchez and Jose Trejo when bad wiring sparked a blaze last month that destroyed their basement apartment in Minneapolis. The Red Cross helped them pay for a hotel immediately after the fire and then helped cover part of the deposit on their new apartment.
Sanchez, who works in a hotel kitchen, said he was grateful for the help, especially given that other charities turned him away because he wasn’t needy enough — he had a job and wasn’t struggling with addiction.
“I am so grateful the Red Cross helped me,” he said.
Said Hanson: “At the end of the day, we are saving lives. You can’t control the weather, but you can control having an escape plan.”