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.