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Prepare, practice, prevent

By Ed Brock

It wasn't just the fire that killed 15-month-old Victor Truong of Morrow, but also the absence of a smoke detector in the house where he lived and died.

Trying to prevent that situation from happening again is one way the Morrow Fire Department is responding to a recent call by the U.S. Fire Administration to alert the public about the increased danger children face in a fire.

"We're actually going to go out and do door to door surveys for working smoke detectors," Morrow Fire Lt. Carl DeMarco said, adding that they will provide a free smoke detector with installation for people who don't have one.

"We're taking care of everything, all they have to do is let us in," DeMarco said.

Truong died in February 2002 and fire officials at the time discovered there was no functioning smoke detector in the house.

The USFA announced the beginning of their "Prepare, Practice and Prevent the Unthinkable" campaign by releasing some information on the numbers of children who died in fires between 1989 and 1998.

During that time in Georgia 1,461 people died in house fires and 206 of them were children under five.

Like the name of the campaign implies, preparation is the way to prevent more deaths.

"One of the things we're trying to push is for people to develop and practice a home fire escape plan," said Glenn Allen, spokesman for Georgia Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner John Oxendine's office.

Oxendine's office and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are working with the USFA on preparing written information for fire departments around the state as part of the campaign.

The practice part is most important, Allen said. It's because a child hasn't practiced the routine that they are more likely to be unable to escape a burning house or to go back into the house looking for their parents or a favorite toy.

"If you practice these skills even at a younger age you will respond properly," Allen said.

Parents of infants and toddlers also need practice since those who don't often have no plan for rescuing their child, Riverdale Fire Chief Billy Hayes said.

"Obviously infants and toddlers are going to need assistance in getting out of the house," Hayes said.

The USFA recommends leaving a baby harness near the child's crib so the parent can use both hands in making an escape. Also, keep the child's bedroom door closed to slow the spread of smoke into the room.

Like the Morrow Fire Department, Allen said that Oxendine's office would also provide free smoke detectors to people who need them. To obtain one call (404) 657-0831.

Oxendine also continues to promote changing the battery in one's smoke detector when it's time to reset the clocks for daylight savings time.

Hayes agreed that reliable smoke detectors are the most important way to reduce fire fatalities, most of which occur before the fire department is even called.

"When you have a failure of that early warning system then you're racing the clock," Hayes said.

Hayes' department is also converting an old school bus into a mobile fire safety theater, and the Morrow, Forest Park and other departments in the county already have similar "smoke house" trailers. Each usually contains a kitchen and bedroom mock-up in which children can have hands-on experience with safety techniques and can practice escaping from a room filled with fake smoke.

And recently the Morrow department has purchased a "hazard house" that provides the same visual stimulus in a controlled classroom setting.

"It's hard to control a child in a (mobile fire safety theater) environment. They're overwhelmed," DeMarco said.

In a way the new campaign is not really new, Clayton County Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Scarbrough said.

"The two groups we've focused on a long time are the very young and the very old," Scarbrough said.

The county department offers a 6- to 8-week "fire setter" program for young people who have been known to start fires or whose parents want to discourage any such tendencies.

"We try to teach them about fire, what causes fire and how to prevent them," Scarbrough said. "When the child gets older we teach them consequences, like burns."

To enroll a child up to age 15 in the free program call (770) 473-7833 and ask for Fire Safety Educator Billy Rice.

Riverdale's department and others also put on the National Fire Protection Agency's "Learn Not to Burn" program in their area schools and the Riverdale department also teaches the NFPA's "Risk Watch" program.

Along with fire safety, Hayes said, the "Risk Watch" program teaches fall prevention, firearm, poison, water and vehicle occupant safety.