Smoke alarm crisis: Conyers, Ga. tragedy should be a wake-up call

Lamonta Stroud, 18, left, stands outside his home across the street from the scene of a house fire that killed four children, including an infant, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013, in Conyers, Ga. Stroud said he ran into the duplex, smashing windows and pleading with the children to come to a bathroom and escape. "I just started hitting windows, breaking windows, screaming 'come to the bathroom, I can get you all out,'" Stroud recalled. "There really wasn't that much I could do. I tried." (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Lamonta Stroud, 18, left, stands outside his home across the street from the scene of a house fire that killed four children, including an infant, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013, in Conyers, Ga. Stroud said he ran into the duplex, smashing windows and pleading with the children to come to a bathroom and escape. "I just started hitting windows, breaking windows, screaming 'come to the bathroom, I can get you all out,'" Stroud recalled. "There really wasn't that much I could do. I tried." (AP Photo/David Goldman)

The tragic deaths of four African-American children in a house fire last week should be a wake-up call for families to have working smoke alarms, says a group of fire and public safety experts.

In this devastating tragedy, the siblings, aged between eight months and 9 years old, died when a deadly fire tore through their Rockdale County, Georgia home.

Their mother, Reba Glass, 27, suffered severe burns over 40 percent of her body while trying to save her children. She managed to save one child, 6-year-old Darnell Jr, by throwing him out of the second floor window. The kindergartener and the children’s grandmother survived the fire.

Officials say there were no working smoke detectors in the 1983 two story, two bedroom duplex on Pinedale Circle in Conyers.  There was not a smoke detector upstairs and although there was a one alarm downstairs, it did not have a battery.  Investigators have concluded that a child playing with a lighter started the fire.

“It [the Conyers fire] should make people aware of the outcome of not having a working smoke detector in their home,” said Rockdale County Fire and Rescue spokesman Michael Morris. He said although the county has a giveaway and installation smoke alarm program for seniors and low income families, it is frustrating that some people still slip through the net.

“Two out of three times when a child is injured or dies from a residential fire, a smoke alarm is not working or not present,” said Kate Carr, president and CEO of Safe Kids Worldwide. “We want to encourage every family to have a working smoke alarm near the kitchen and in every bedroom, and to be sure to check the batteries each year. This will help protect families and save lives.”

In fact, it has been well documented that low income families, and some sectors of the African-American community, are more a risk of fire-related deaths and injuries. Not only are they more likely not to have a working smoke alarm but they use less conventional heating sources, likely to live in substandard housing and because of a lack of money may find it harder to provide adequate adult supervision.

A 2010 National Fire Protection Association study, for instance, found black Americans faced a risk of fire death almost twice that of an individual of another race. African-American seniors and the under 5s are most at risk. Deaths from fires and burns are the third leading cause of fatal home injury (Runyan 2004), according to a fact sheet on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

Smoke detectors that are properly installed and maintained play an important role in reducing fire-related deaths and injuries, said Morris. “It’s important to have them [smoke alarms], maintain them, check if they are working properly at least once a month, change the batteries twice a year, make sure they are free of debris or that no one paints over them.”

Billy Ingram, the former president of the Dallas Black Firefighters Association, said despite smoke alarm giveaways programs he can see a clear disparity in the use and maintenance of smoke alarms in low income households.

“Not only do we go into lower income areas to give out alarms we do a blitz,” said Ingram, a 30 year veteran fighter. “We knock on people’s doors and ask if they have a working fire alarm. If not then we install them.”

Malik Aziz, chair of the National Black Police Association, said local chapters of the association work in partnership with fire departments to distribute smoke alarms. “Anytime a child dies of something that could have been prevented it is a big problem,” he said.

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