A fire in a rowhouse without a smoke detector spread to four neighboring dwellings in North Philadelphia early and injured six people, including four children, officials said. One child was reported in critical condition. Deputy Chief Michael Wahl said that when the first unit arrived at 3:46 a.m., firefighters found heavy fire on the ground floor of a 2-story rowhouse at 219 W. Albanus St. in the Olney section. “They made an aggressive interior attack,” he said.

The blaze spread along the porches to three houses on the west side of the home at 219 and one to the west, Wahl said. He said four children were taken to St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, including a 5-year-old boy who suffered critical burns. Two adults, including a woman who jumped to escape the flames from one of the neighboring homes, were in on stable condition at Albert Einstein Medical Center, he said. Firefighters did not find a smoke detector inside 219, Wahl said. It took firefighters a half-hour to bring the blaze under control. LINK

This story is both typical and frustrating for me as a city firefighter. It is typical because of the circumstances. We have a very intense row-house fire that quickly spreads while people are at their most vulnerable, early in the morning when everyone is sleeping. The firefighters who responded had their hands full from the outset and did an incredible job as usual.

I know what these jobs are like. Brutal is the only word that comes to mind. At 3 am your body is suddenly propelled into warp drive, 100 miles an hour in under a minute. Then your are instantly working at full capacity, expending every ounce of energy trying to get the upper hand. It’s a race against time. The first arriving companies have to get the fire knocked down before it grows beyond their immediate capacity to do so. In plain words the firefighters are fighting to keep the fire from growing so big that they can’t contain it without massive reinforcements. Time is in short supply. While the engine companies attack the fire, ladder companies are opening the buildings up and searching for trapped or injured residents and victims. When it’s over you’re spent. In hockey they change lines every two minutes. In firefighting it’s a minimum of twenty. We have about twenty minutes for the initial attack to succeed or fail. After that we have to begin re-assessment of the overall situation. At twenty minutes structural integrity becomes a big factor. That’s the typical part of this story.

The frustrating part is that there were no smoke detectors present. I can’t tell you how many smoke detectors I have installed in this city in my twenty years on the job. Our department must have installed millions of them. There is no excuse for any homeowner in  this city not to have them. But every day we read stories about houses burning out with no smoke detectors present. In fact this weekend to correspond with daylight savings, the department MANDATED every company to install THIRTY SMOKE DETECTORS as part of our annual “Change your clock, change your battery” campaign. We spent hours driving around knocking on doors and installing free smoke detectors for people. Five firefighters, a ladder truck burning lots of diesel fuel to hand deliver and install $7.00 smoke detectors for free. It would be cheaper to use Air Force One. In the process of delivering them our fire truck broke down AGAIN forcing us out of service and into another lengthy change over process with another 20-year-old obsolete apparatus. Needless to say I was beat down.

I have a theory as to why people don’t have smoke detectors installed in their homes. It’s because we have relieved them of their personal responsibility for doing so (even though it’s a city ordinance). If I think about every one of the thirty houses I visited this weekend, none were truly incapable of installing a smoke detector or impoverished. All of those homeowners manage to pay their gas and electric bills, big screen TV’s, cut their grass, put their trash out and do pretty much everything else required as homeowners (for the most part). Why then do we feel it’s necessary to spoon feed them smoke detectors? In New York City the fire department doesn’t come to your house and install smoke detectors for you. They may give them out for free and that’s fine. But there are 7 million residents in NYC. The fire department just can’t undertake such an operation. Our policy of installing smoke detectors for those who can do it on their own may be enabling people to ignore the law. In any event make sure you have smoke detectors and CO2 alarms installed in your home. It’s simple life insurance for you and your family.



  1. TrekMedic says:

    Hey, C/A, long time, no comments. I completely agree. When I lived in Philly, it infuriated me to see FFs waste their time going door-to-door handing out something for free that costs a few dollars at your local hardware store. I’m surprised you aren’t required to hand out the replacement batteries every two years as well!

  2. Jack says:

    Spot on! Personal responsibility! How often are these “free” detectors cannibalized for the battery? Often.
    What is next?? Hospitals delivering salads to obese junk food eaters?

    I believe Darwin would be amazed at our collective effort to ensure the survival of those who neither care, or contribute.

  3. Mike47 says:

    Captain: Does your department have a smoke detector distribution program? The one in our city (Sacramento, CA) for private residences seems to be donation-funded.

  4. Mike47 says:

    Oops! I missed the second page of the article. Sorry.

  5. andrew35 says:

    Mike47 , if you could put all the Detectors side by side they would reach the Moon and back, We’ve been giving them out for years and it’s a law that you must have them when you sell a house. The problem is the old thing of “some” don’t really care and don’t change the battery. All they have to do is call the FD and a Co. will respond and even install a new one. I’m sure Capt.America has been in many homes where there are multiple detectors on the walls w/no battery. Dats de ways it is,Jake

  6. The Working Class Conservative says:

    Hell we started installing the 10 year detectors before I retired. If you feed the birds they come back every day. NAMEEN?

  7. Wyatt Earp says:

    When we had our home renovation (added a floor), they hard-wired us with smoke/CO2 detectors. We kept the store-bought smoke detectors up, just as a precaution.

    How some people don’t have ANY is a mystery to me.

  8. Bob G. says:

    We have smoke-detector “give-aways” here in Ft. Wayne, and yet we STILL have house fires (at my blog, I often mention that “special kind of stupid” that accompanies such things).

    But, having grown up in ROWHOMES back in Philly, I can appreciate your explanation to the severity of such a fire, as well as the time-sensitivity involved.
    I remember the MOVE fiasco all those eyars ago, too…took out a whole block.

    But with the freebie detectors (here), they are either never installed, or the batteries are removed (for whatever else is more “entertaining”.).
    No watchdoggin’ by realtors or code enforcement to speak of, so houses roll over trime and again with NO protection whatsoever.

    And we wind up back at Square One.

    Fort Wayne city code states we’re SUPPOSED to have at least ONE per floor (we have two in our 1200 sq ft.Cape Cod stand-alone), as well as one at both sets of stairs, and the batteries are tested and replaced when needed.
    We even have a CO detector, and checking into a RADON detector soon.
    (look nice with the extinguishers we also have)

    Then again, COMMON SENSE dictates protocol, right?
    Some folks never seem to grasp that.

    Good post and comments.

    Roll safe out there.

  9. dustydog says:

    Perhaps donate to the local PTA/PTO a gift certificate for a smoke detector, or a smoke detector installed by a real fireman!

    We are always looking for donations to sell / raffle. I think I might be able to sell a real visit by a fireman + a new official fire detector professionally installed for a $10 or $20 donation, and have the buyer think they robbed me blind.

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