Elgin firefighters find 'scary' lack of smoke detectors
Two days after a fire displaced two families in Elgin, Fire Chief Dave Schmidt directed firefighters to do something new -- go back to the neighborhood, check on the condition of smoke detectors and give out new ones if needed.
The result of the canvass was frightening, he said. Only one in four dwellings had working smoke detectors; the others either were not functioning or homes didn't have them at all.
"It is kind of scary," Schmidt said. "When I was a kid, smoke detectors were just starting to come out. In the mid- to late '80s you slowly saw more smoke detectors. Fast-forward 25 years and we are still having the same issues."
The early-morning fire Dec. 20 displaced two families with a total of nine children -- one suffering burns on her back -- who lived in a converted house on the 300 block of Division Street. Investigators found no functioning smoke detectors in the second floor unit, where the fire started in a bedroom, Schmidt said.
The one-hour canvass Dec. 22 involved 14 firefighters who knocked on 74 residences. Of those, 45 had someone home who answered the door; firefighters gave out 14 sets of batteries and installed 30 new smoke detectors.
Fire Lt. Eric Gurke, a 17-year veteran of the department, took part in the initiative. He had helped rescue one of two teenagers who climbed outside their windows to get to safety on Dec. 20.
"It was pretty sobering when we saw those numbers," Gurke said of the canvass. "Some of the people were like, 'Oh yeah, we used to have one (smoke detector), but we don't anymore; we just haven't gotten them replaced.' Everyone was very grateful."
The death rate per 100 reported home fires was more than twice as high in homes that did not have any working smoke alarms from 2009 to 2013, according to a 2015 report by the National Fire Protection Association.
Homeowners are required to provide working smoke detectors for renters at move-in time, and renters are in charge of maintaining them, Schmidt said.
The Elgin Fire Department has offered free smoke detectors and in-home installation for more than a year, said Schmidt, who was named fire chief in October.
His goals for 2017 include doing more fire prevention outreach, and kicking that off last week was a spur-of-the-moment decision, he said. "My thought was, 'Let's jump on this now,'" he said.
The door-to-door canvass was the first of its kind in Elgin, at least in recent memory, but it's not uncommon among other fire departments, Schmidt said. The fire department will determine which neighborhoods to target based on data such as, for example, which areas have the highest rate of cooking-related fires, he said.
Gurke praised the initiative. "Obviously the sooner someone is alerted to the fire, the greater the likelihood of them being able to make it out safely. And obviously our No. 1 concern is the safety of the citizens."