SCHENECTADY — Have a plan. Read the instruction manual. And if something seems wrong, don’t ignore the issue.
Those are just a few messages that officials from the Schenectady Fire Department are pushing as Fire Safety Month comes to a close and the cold winter months begin to set in.
Members from the department have been traveling to elementary schools throughout the city this month to educate students on the dangers of fire and the importance of having an escape plan in the event flames do break out at their home.
But officials are reminding adults that they play a significant role in preventing fires and the development of plans to keep their household safe.
“Ultimately, you want the kids to go home and talk to their parents about it because they’re the ones that are really going to be able to formulate the plan and make sure it’s implemented,” said Lt. Christopher Apa, a fire investigator who helps oversee the programming.
The school presentations are targeted to students in grades K-2 and focus on three areas: the importance of developing an escape plan, discussing the plan with family members and routinely holding at-home fire drills. The department also works with agencies throughout the county to provide intervention services to children who exhibit worrying signs of fire play.
But Apa said it’s incumbent on adults to actually take time to develop a plan so firefighters can focus on extinguishing the flames rather than search and rescue operations — which takes priority when responding to a fire. Ensuring a home is equipped with working smoke detectors (which the Red Cross distributes for free) and carbon monoxide alarms are small, but critical steps.
Last year, a student who sat in on the presentation went home and urged her family to develop a plan. A few days later, the family was forced to execute the plan when their home was intentionally set on fire.
The family of four was able to escape without injury, but Apa said the incident underscores the importance of being prepared.
“It was the best outcome, I guess, that we could have had. I’ve talked to thousands of kids, and I know I reached one,” he said.
Fire departments throughout the U.S. responded to more than 1.35 million fire calls last year, resulting in 3,800 fatalities and 14,700 injuries and $15.9 billion in property damage, according to a report from the National Fire Protection Association.
The report found the number of fire incidents last year was 55% lower than in 1980, but noted that only 25% of fires occurred at one- or two-family homes and multifamily dwellings, but the incidents results in 75% and 76% of reported deaths and injuries, respectively.
“There is still more work to do, particularly around home fires,” the report reads.
In Schenectady, firefighters respond to around 50 second-alarm fires annually, according to Fire Chief Donald Mareno, who said fire prevention is a top priority for the department, which works with other agencies to identify children who show troubling signs of playing with fire.
“My philosophy is on fire is I can tell you how many fires we’ve had, I can’t tell you how many we prevented,” he said. “Fire prevention is extremely important and it’s something that goes on not just in October, but it should go on every month, every week, every day of the year.”
For the last 10 years, the department has participated in the Juvenile Firesetter Prevention Program, which works to identify and educate children who show a worrying curiosity for fire.
The program, overseen by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and administered by the state, is used primarily as an evaluation tool, with officials often referring children to other support services.
Children can be referred to the program through Child Protective Services, schools and on some occasions, directly by family members, said Apa, who has worked with the program for a number of years. There have also been incidents where fire officials discover signs that a fire was intentional set by a child and reach out to families to set up the training, which typically takes place at a neutral location.
Apa said curiosity with fire is not uncommon with young children, but can be an indicator of a more serious issue. Parents and guardians, he said, should talk with children about fire safety and enroll them in organizations like church groups or scouts that offer a supervised, educational outlet to learn about fire.
They should also monitor for signs like playing with matches, burning toys and missing lighters, which he said are all potential indicators of a problem.
“It’s kind of like a tool to evaluate them and get interventions before it goes too far,” Apa said.
Read the instructions
But fire prevention goes beyond talking to children, according to Apa, who said residents must be mindful not to overload circuit breakers when using space heaters and other electrical products.
He recommended always reading the instruction manual and keeping heaters a safe distance from combustible items, like blankets and curtains.
Homeowners should also be mindful of circuit breakers consistently popping, which he said could be a sign of faulty or outdated wiring, which could lead to a fire. Residents who encounter the issue should contact a license contractor or inform their landlord of the issue.
The city’s codes department should be contacted if the issue continues to persist.
“If you’re regularly popping breakers, it could be a problem with the electrical circuit, which are designed to protect the wiring in the house,” Apa said. “If you’re not overloading the circuit and that’s happening, that’s signaling another problem that should be investigated.”
For additional information on fire safety, visit the state’s Office of Fire Prevention and Control at: hses.ny.gov/office-fire-prevention-and-control.
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.