Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett today received the final report from the Senior Citizen Fire Safety Task Force, convened to address the dramatic increase in senior citizen fire fatalities. Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service (MCFRS) has already begun implementing many of the report’s 37 recommendations, including hiring a senior citizen fire safety coordinator; conducting a countywide, door-to-door initiative called “Safety in the Neighborhood;” forming community-wide partnerships to deliver safety messages and using mass media to raise awareness.
“Despite the fact that Montgomery County has one of the lowest fire death rates per capita in the country, our senior citizens are dying in fires in disproportionate numbers and we must take more aggressive action to change this trend,” said Leggett. “The Senior Citizen Fire Safety Task Force has outlined a blueprint for action to stop the alarming upward trend of senior fire-related deaths and injuries. I sincerely appreciate the hard work and dedication of the 25 members of the Task Force who spent two years to produce guidelines to improve safety and save the lives of our seniors.”
Seniors comprise only about 11 percent of the County’s population. Yet, during the past 10 years, 24 seniors, age 65 and over, died in fires in Montgomery County – 43 percent of 58 fire fatalities. Between 2004 and 2006, 12 seniors died in fires – 75 percent of the 16 fatalities that occurred. Seniors occupy 21 percent of all Montgomery County homes and 78 percent of seniors between the ages of 75 and 84 live alone.
“We had an epidemic that resulted in disproportionate numbers of older residents dying in fires,” said Montgomery County Fire Chief Thomas W. Carr, Jr. “The Task Force was very determined, and as a result has developed legitimate and relevant recommendations that will save lives. Among other things they advocated for ‘fire-safe cigarettes’ here and in Annapolis, not resting until it became a law in Maryland. They have also worked tirelessly to form public/private partnerships.”
MCFRS’s “Safety in the Neighborhood” campaign is one of the ways firefighters are implementing the Task Force’s recommendations. Under this effort, all five MCFRS battalions will begin a door-to-door campaign during the next month in targeted “high risk” areas to install smoke alarms in homes that do not have them; ensure installed smoke detectors are working; distribute fresh batteries for smoke detectors, if necessary; and leave door hangers encouraging residents to check their homes for fire safety. High risk areas are defined as locations with a high concentration of seniors or geographic areas that have experienced a high incidence of fire calls over the past year.
The “Put a Finger On It” education effort to encourage residents to check their smoke alarms will also improve the community’s overall level of preparedness. Fire fighters will distribute fire prevention and other safety information, including Halloween safety tips fact sheets and reflective trick-or-treat bags, at community activities and public events, such as sporting events, farmer’s markets, civic and home association meetings and shopping centers. MCFRS will also conduct surveys to measure the level of the community’s preparedness and gauge the public’s opinion of their performance.
On November 1, the eve of the fire department’s annual “Change Your Clock/Change Your Battery” initiative, MCFRS, Montgomery County Fire Corps and the National Capital Area Boy Scouts will team up for another “Safety in Our Neighborhood” campaign. As Boy Scouts conduct their annual “Scouting for Food” door-to-door campaign, which is critical to area food banks over the winter months, they will also distribute an educational fire safety door hanger to about 150,000 homes.
MCFRS is also in the process of hiring a staff person who will be dedicated to providing leadership in fire safety training and implementing the Task Force’s recommendations.
The Senior Citizen Fire Safety Task Force report recommendations addressed four areas: building technology and standards; community characteristics and demographics; public and provider education; and advocacy and legislation. Within each of these four areas, recommendations were prioritized for immediate, short term and long term implementation.
“Recent tragic fire incidents involving senior citizens demanded urgent action,” said J. Paul Thomas, chair of the Senior Citizen Fire Safety Task Force. “Accordingly, the Task Force adopted a rapid response schedule to produce a purposeful yet realistic fire safety plan. The Task Force members, along with the outstanding Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service liaison and support staff, have worked diligently throughout their term to establish sound ‘state of the science’ recommendations as the foundation for an effective strategy to improve senior citizen fire safety in Montgomery County.”
The Task Force report states that the key to success in preventing senior citizen fire fatalities in Montgomery County is changing socio-cultural attitudes about fire safety by: 1) educating seniors to respond appropriately in emergencies; 2) encouraging families, friends and neighbors to install and maintain smoke alarms and other fire safety devices; 3) educating seniors and their families about alternative living arrangements when seniors can no longer safely live independently; 4) ensuring that everyone knows that fire safety is an individual responsibility; and 5) improving knowledge among emergency responders so they can better communicate with seniors in an emergency.
The objectives of the Task Force were to:
• Identify strategies to reduce fire risk among seniors;
• Identify strategies to reduce fire casualties and fatalities among seniors;
• Identify changes to building and fire codes and standards for new and existing structures that anticipate/acknowledge the aging population and appropriate changes to incorporate safety features;
• Explore the addition of new “independent living” use groups within the national building and fire model codes and standards;
• Identify new and emerging off-the-shelf technologies that bridge the gap between code-compliant new buildings and non-compliant existing buildings;
• Identify demographic changes and community changes that affect the safety of senior citizens; and
• Identify personal and community-based procedures and requirements that senior citizens and caregivers can adopt and practice to increase senior citizen fire safety.
Leggett accepted the Task Force final report today and presented certificates of appreciation to the Task Force members. The Task Force was convened in March 2006 and was comprised of 25 members, a majority of whom are seniors. The Task Force was appointed by the County Executive, and includes representatives from the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service, Department of Health and Human Services, Commission on Aging, Housing Opportunities Commission, Commission on People with Disabilities, Department of Liquor Control, Offices of the County Executive, The Burn Center at Washington Hospital Center, Apartment Owners and Builders Association, management from senior housing complexes, senior citizen organizations and residents.
The full report is available on the County’s website at www.montgomerycountymd.gov/firerescue. For more information, contact Pete Piringer, 240-777-2474.
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