The Albion Fire Department's new fire safety house.
Okay, so we had a little fun in my last two columns, making really bad puns and jokes about fires. Having been a firefighter for a few years, I’ve earned the right to indulge in that little quirk so many people in dangerous professions have: gallows humor.
This is a humor column, after all, and I’m contractually required to be funny three out of every four times. Believe me, I’ve skirted dangerously close to breaking that rule with columns that are supposed to be funny.
Still, fires aren’t a funny business. Fire Prevention Week is now referred to as Fire Prevention Month, and that’s an idea I support; so I wanted to take time to stress the why’s of that, in a more serious way.
I’ve been fighting fires as a volunteer for – get this – 27 years, and there was a time when I hung around the firehouse every spare minute, hoping for a call. I loved fighting fire. To this day, if there’s to be a fire, I want to be there.
But I don’t want there to be a fire. I’ve seen too much.
Do you know what the easiest way to fight fire is? Simple: Keep it from starting. Fires aren’t like on TV, where you can walk upright through a room full of flames, breathing and seeing. It’s dark, it’s hot, and it’s destructive in a way people can’t understand. Even when we make a good stop on a fire, many belongings are still destroyed by extreme heat and smoke.
As of October 5 of this year, 97 firefighters have died, just in the United States. The average number of fires has declined, but firefighter deaths have remained constant, at over 100 every year.
How many fires would you guess broke out in the US last year? 1,642,500, including 524,000 structure fires. Those are just the ones reported.
Over a million and a half.
3,245 civilians were killed in American structure fires last year. 16,400 were injured. Property damage? $11.3 billion dollars. Along with that were 278,000 vehicle fires, which killed 490 people and hurt 1,200 more. 50 more civilians were killed, and 850 injured, in other kinds of fires. (Source: National Fire Prevention Association)
Suddenly it’s not so funny.
Why do we recognize Fire Prevention Week, now Month, in October? It’s to commemorate one of the greatest fire disasters in American history. On October 8, 1871, flames leveled four square miles of Chicago, Illinois, killing hundreds of people. The location where that fire started is now the Chicago Fire Academy, where rookie firefighters train.
But that wasn’t the biggest fire of the week. At the same time as the Great Chicago
Fire, a series of forest fires in Wisconsin and Michigan burned millions of acres, destroyed entire communities such as Peshtigo, Wisconsin, Holland, Michigan, and Manistee, Michigan, and killed between 1,200 and 2,500 people.
So it’s a good time to remember the danger of fire. Could such a disaster happen again, in this era of modern fire protection? Sure. All it needs is the right combination of circumstances, or should I say wrong combination. The way to beat it is to stop fires from ever happening.
I won’t go into detail into how to do that – there are many great sources of that information, starting with our home-grown fire prevention guru, Fireman Phil Jacob, who’s saved more lives than every other firefighter in Noble County combined. How many he’s saved, we don’t know; but if you want to impress the right way to do things on someone, start when they’re kids, and that’s what Phil does.
He can tell you all about the importance of smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, and fire extinguishers; he knows about Exit Drills In The Home, dialing 911, and stop, drop and roll. And now he’s teaching a whole new generation of kids in a brand new fire safety house that he’s largely responsible for.
Phil was the driving force behind the old fire safety house: Like a general leading a campaign, he put together an alliance of industry, businesses, organizations, and fire departments from around the area. When it was time to produce a new, state of the art fire prevention tool to replace the old one, he did it again. I toured the new fire safety house, which was delivered just this month, and was amazed.
"Fireman Phil" Jacob demonstrates features of the recently delivered fire safety house.
As the kids watch, smoke will come out of the fireplace, or from an overloaded electrical outlet, and set off the smoke detectors. The electric oven will start glowing, and a pan can rotate on the stove to show the burn hazard when a handle hangs over the edge of the stove. A door heats up, teaching the kids how to check for heat before crawling into the next room.
But wait – there’s more!
As the television plays, an announcer suddenly interrupts with storm warnings.
Thunder rumbles, lightning flashes, and a weather alert radio blares to life. Yep – the fire safety house does double duty, and can even teach kids how to prepare for an oncoming storm!
I’m stunned at what’s been put together with this new safety house, and impressed at the numerous volunteers and community leaders who, headed by Phil Jacob, put this together and use it to educate our children. These are people dedicated to protecting us in the best way possible: to stop the destruction of fire before it ever begins.
If you see Phil, shake his hand. He’ll quickly point to all the others who had a hand in fire prevention in our communities – track them down and shake their hands, too. It’s not as “glamorous” as attacking a fire, but their quiet, often unrecognized work has saved a lot of lives.
How many hazards can you identify? Well, there's a fireplace, an overloaded circuit beside it, a carelessly discarded oven mitt, a pan handle sticking over the side of the stove, and a heavily tattoo'd volunteer firefighter who grew up in Chicago.
Because this is bad.