Joe Thomas and Patricia Murtagh: Planning for a safe, happy holiday season

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While Maine has its share of fires, the past three months have been particularly difficult, as our state has seen 12 fire-related deaths — a staggering number — and one that approaches last year’s total of 19.

Even more heartbreaking is that all of the 12 victims were young, with their lives ahead of them. The three fatal fires — in Biddeford, Portland and Caribou — left family, friends and neighbors stunned and searching for answers.

Lewiston, perhaps more than any other community in northern New England, has seen first-hand the damaging power of fire. Several fires this year have served as all-too-familiar reminders of the 2013 blazes that displaced more than 200 residents.

The Red Cross may best be known for providing food, clothing, emotional support and emergency housing for victims of fires and other disasters. Starting this year, the organization is teaming with the state Fire Marshal’s Office and local fire departments on a nationwide initiative that aims to reduce fire-related deaths and injuries by 25 percent through the next five years.

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The effort includes an educational component, as well as the installation of smoke alarms in high risk areas.

The program, just underway, includes a stop this month in Lewiston.

While the Red Cross is taking the lead on this program, every resident in Maine can take steps to reduce the risk of a serious fire.

First, people must be sure to have working smoke alarms. Simply put, smoke alarms save lives. The odds of surviving a fire increase 50 percent if there are working smoke alarms.

We recently responded to a fire that caused significant damage to the building, but there were no deaths or injuries. While it is too early to determine the role smoke alarms played in that outcome, we were pleased to hear several of them sounding as firefighters extinguished the blaze.

Too often, we learn of missing or disabled alarms at scenes of fatal fires.

Alarms should be installed on each floor — outside of sleeping areas, and inside of each bedroom. It is important to test an alarm monthly and vacuum them regularly to keep them free of dust.

Residences should also have a carbon monoxide alarm on each floor and outside of sleeping areas to protect families from that deadly gas.

Smoke alarms have a lifespan of 10 years, so units that are older than a decade should be replaced. Today’s models have 10-year batteries, so there is less concern about replacing them (but the batteries should still be tested each month).

In addition to working smoke alarms, people should develop and practice an emergency escape plan. This is particularly important if there are children.

The good news is that kids like such types of activities, and if parents let them help with the planning, they are probably going to remember what to do should they ever have to get out of a burning house.

Escape plans help ensure that everyone knows what to do in a fire, when time is at a premium. A Red Cross survey found that Americans greatly overestimate the time they have to escape a fire. A staggering 62 percent said five minutes, while 18 percent thought 10 minutes.

How much time does a person really have to escape a burning house? About two minutes. That’s all, so the quicker people get out the better. The early warning of a smoke alarm, combined with pre-determined escape routes, can mean the difference between life and death.

We are in the midst of the holiday season and frigid winter weather has already arrived. While these are times for family and festivities, snowmen and skiing, they also bring a greater risk of fire, as the most common causes are cooking and heating-related. That means, this is an especially important time to take extra precautions.

We hope people will never experience a fire. But if a fire happens, working smoke alarms and an escape plan can help ensure residents get out alive.

That’s one of the best ways to ensure that we will all be around for many more happy holidays.

Joseph Thomas is the State Fire Marshal. Patricia Murtagh is CEO of the American Red Cross in Maine.

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