Area Fire Fighters Busy as 2006 Comes to a Close

Four (4) Montgomery County residents have been killed in residential fires in the year 2006 compared to five (5) in 2005. Most recently, Mrs. Leona Schwartz, age 83, a resident of the Highland House Apartment in Chevy Chase died from burns and smoke inhalation as result of fire that occurred on November 24, 2006. Prior to Mrs. Schwartz three (3) others died in residential fires, including Larry Levine, age 56, of Wheaton on October 10, 2006. Mr. Levine was injured on September 17, 2006 when his clothes caught on fire while cooking. He succumbed to his injuries and died several weeks later. Mary Louise Harrington, age 78, of Kensington died on August 27 and on February 26 Francis Richard Deleo, age 84, of Rockville died of a result of injuries he sustained on February 9, 2006. Mrs. Harrington and Mr. Deleo were killed in fires caused by careless smoking and improperly discarded smoking materials.

A similar trend has occurred again this year, as occurred in 2005. Senior citizens are dying in fires caused by careless smoking or improperly discarded smoking materials and cooking. In 2006 three (3) out of four (4) residential fire fatalities were caused by smoking materials and involved senior citizens over the age of 78. The single other fatal fire was cooking related and killed a 56 year old man. Last year, in 2005, five (5) senior citizens over age 75 died in fires, four (4) of which were started by careless smoking and/or improperly discarded smoking materials.

Again in the year (2006), the leading cause of fire fatalities was related to smoking materials followed by unattended cooking.

Montgomery County fire fighters and emergency medical first responders were called to assist on about 100,000 incidents in 2006. During the course of the year almost 300,000 emergency units responded involving about one million fire and rescue personnel on emergency apparatus. About 75-80 percent of all responses were medical or rescue incidents.

In the next five years, six (6) new fire/rescue stations are expected to built, primarily in the Upcounty areas the communities of Germantown (east and west), Clarksburg, Travilah , Shady Grove and in the East County along the Route 29 corridor between Burtonsville and White Oak.

There were about 2000 actual fires (resulting in significant damage) including over 500 structure fires and nearly as many vehicle fires. These numbers are about the same, but slightly more than as in 2005. Teams of Fire and Explosive Investigators responded to nearly 600 incidents during the year, including over 150 bomb/explosive related responses, over 225 criminal investigations and about 200 fire investigations. There were almost 250 arsons reported this year, including several serial cases. Montgomery County Fire and Explosive Investigators arrested 45 individuals, most of whom were juveniles. The conviction rate is above the national average for crimes of this nature.

This year's fire loss is estimated at approximately $38 million compared to about $40 million in 2005, nearly $35 million in 2004 and $42 million in 2003.

April, May, September, October, November and December 2006 were particularly costly months, while fire fatalities occurred in February, August September and December making them the most deadly.

During the past two years, eight (8) out of nine (9) residential fatal fire victims were over the age of 75. Fire death's in the County for the last several years has established a trend which clearly show older adults are at higher risk. Even so Montgomery County has one of the lowest residential fire deaths rates per capita in the State. None-the-less, earlier this year former County Executive Doug Duncan established the Senior Citizen Fire Safety Task Force.

Consisting of up to 25 members, the Task Force has been actively engaged and will be submitting strategies and procedures designed to reduce the risk of fire-related deaths and injuries to senior citizens in the county in a report to County Executive Isiah Leggett and County Fire Chief Tom Carr.

The Task Force is comprised of about 25 members, with the majority of the public members being senior citizens. Members will be serving for two-year terms. Mr. J. Paul Thomas, of Colesville is the Chair and Jacqueline Rabinow, of Silver Spring is the Vice Chair, both of whom were appointed by the County Executive. Former Montgomery County Fire Marshal and Assistant Chief (retired) John Best, was retained as the Task Force Administrator and liaison to the County Executive and County Fire Chief.

Again, of the four (4) residential fire fatalities this past year (2006) most were over the age of 75 years old, one was 56 years old, one was 78 years old, two were in their 80's. In 2005, of the five residential fire fatalities, all were over 75 years old, two were in their 70's, one was 80 and two were in their 90's.

Estimated fire losses for a three week period from the end of November and in December 2006 alone was over $5.5 million dollars in damage, resulted in one residential fire fatality, several injured residents, as well as several injured firefighters and displaced well over one hundred persons and impacted many other families.

There were at least eight (8) structure fires in 2006 that resulted in damage over $1 million dollars, including one fire in May that resulted in a loss of $2.25 million dollars. In addition, at least a half a dozen other residential structure fires resulted in damage that exceeded $500,000, including a $900,000 loss to a house in Bethesda on December 29, 2006. About two dozen others structure fires had losses higher than $250,000. There were over seventy-five incidents in which damage exceeded $75,000.

The leading causes of fire are improperly discarded smoking materials, cooking, heating equipment (including space heaters and fireplaces), arson and electrical (not necessarily in that order). Improperly discarded smoking materials and/or careless smoking was the leading cause of fire fatalities, resulting in three deaths, followed one death caused by cooking. With one exception this year, all fire fatalities occurred to persons older than age 75.

Beginning in calendar year 2005, new legislation brought about a reorganization of the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service that included a first ever County Fire Chief. Fire Chief Tom Carr was sworn-in in January 2005. Much has been accomplished under his leadership.

The Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service (MCFRS) is a full spectrum life safety agency protecting nearly 1 million people who live and work in Maryland's most populous jurisdiction. The MCFRS is a combination system (career/volunteer), operating with a budget of about $180 million, comprised of over 1200 career uniformed personnel and professional civilian staff and an equal number of volunteers, nearly half of whom actively participate in emergency response.

The Montgomery County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association and Montgomery County have negotiated a volunteer benefit package, believed to be the first of its kind for a volunteer firefighters group in the nation.

In addition to thousands of hours of in-service training and required education for fire, rescue and emergency medical personnel, the Fire and Rescue Training Academy has trained and graduated three Firefighter/Rescuer Recruit Classes.

Several additional emergency medical services (EMS) transport capable units were placed in service in 2006. Called "flex units" these additional EMS units were initially be assigned to the Gaithersburg area and Bel Pre/Aspen Hill area of the County and will supplement existing fire and rescue resources. It is anticipated as the fleet of Montgomery County EMS units is expanded, additional funding is received or a redistribution of staffing resources occurs, additional 'flex units' may be placed in service in the Silver Spring and Rockville areas at Fire Station 19 and Fire Station 23, respectively.

In 2006 many other initiatives were initiated including a very successful "Fireworks Amnesty" program, various wellness and safety programs such as a colorectal cancer screenings for fire fighters, physical exams for all volunteer emergency responders and a driver safety and awareness program called "Hear Us, See Us, Clear for Us", to name a few. Hundreds of homes received home safety evaluations or inspections while hundreds of smoke alarms were distributed to residents and fire fighters assisted checking the installation of thousands of child safety seats. For the second time, all fire stations in the region, including many in Montgomery County, participated in the holiday Toys for Tots program. Fire stations throughout Montgomery County collected over 10,000 toys and at the same time continued local community holiday traditions that impacted on thousands of county residents and their families.

Much new equipment and apparatus worth tens of millions of dollars has been funded and approved to be ordered, some of which was already been delivered and placed in service throughout the county this past year.

This includes, about forty (40) pumper's (engines), nine (9) aerial ladder trucks, at least seventeen (17) EMS units, three (3) heavy rescue squads, two (2) haz-mat units and close to two dozen support and staff vehicles. Over $30 million dollars of new apparatus is expected in the next two years alone.

Fire and Rescue operations staffing levels have been improved and planning for implementation of the first phase of four (4) person staffing on emergency units has begun. In the meantime staffing enhancements have already taken place at fire stations in Rockville-Falls Road, Damascus, Laytonsville, Rockville, and Germantown. In addition, staffing and emergency service resources were expanded in Clarksburg to include a medic unit, aerial tower and engine with the move to an interim fire station on Gateway Center Drive.

In November The U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced a grant award of over $1.2 million dollars for the 2006 Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grants (SAFER). The purpose of the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grants is to help fire departments increase the number of frontline firefighters.

Recently the County Council amended the Fire Safety Code and approved a new fee schedule for inspections, permits, licenses and certificates that will allow for enhanced staffing and an expansion of the Fire Code Enforcement Section. As a result of this County Council action thirty (30) additional Fire Inspectors will be added over the next three years.

The Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service Child Safety Seat program continues to grow in order to promote child passenger safety. Montgomery County is a leader in the nation in this regard. In 2006 an additional Child Safety Seat Inspection Station was opened at a local car dealer, thus expanding weekend and evening service. In addition dozens of new MCFRS Car Seat technicians were trained and certified. Annually, Montgomery County checks about 9,000 child safety seats. Furthermore, new upgraded child safety seats were acquired for all of the County's EMS units.

It is important that all residents know to have a working smoke alarm on each level of a home, have an escape plan (know how to get out quickly) and call the fire department from a safe area, preferably a neighbor's house.

Busy Time of Year

Winter residential fires are more damaging and deadly than that of all residential fires. The leading causes of residential fires in the winter are heating, cooking and improperly discarded smoking materials. This contrasts with the all-year causes where cooking is the leading cause followed by heating. Even with the mild weather, so far, the increase in residential heating fires in the winter is not surprising.

Typically, nearly 40% of residential fire related injuries and 50% of residential fatalities occur between the beginning of late November and end of February. Considering the numbers of deaths and injuries over the year; nationally, January is the peak month for both measures.

With the exception of the difference in cause of residential fire, winter fires are not particularly different from those fires that occur throughout the year. There are slight variations, however, in the area of fire origin. As would be expected by the increase in heating fires, chimney fires, for example, increase during the winter months.

The best protection a family can have in order to survive a home fire is the combination of a residential sprinkler system and working smoke alarms. Beginning this year all new single family homes have been required to have residential sprinkler systems. It is recommended that a smoke alarms be installed on every level of a home and families have and practice a home escape plan.