OTTUMWA — One of the biggest dangers in homes across the city is an absence of working smoke alarms, contributing to a record 30 structure fires so far this year.
A new project next month will tackle that issue head-on. The American Red Cross Southern Prairie Chapter, American Red Cross of Greater Iowa Ottumwa Fire Department, United Way of Wapello County and the city have partnered to install smoke alarms in up to 300 homes on Sept. 11.
The Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation awarded a $10,000 grant for the project, which will help purchase 375 dual-sensor smoke alarms with a 10-year lithium battery. This project isn’t new to Iowa. A similar event canvassed Centerville last fall and after the death of a young woman and three children in Lake City in November, the community rallied around the effort to protect their families and homes with smoke alarms.
“We went door to door in the community as a blitz effort,” said Dan Cataldi, American Red Cross of Greater Iowa state response officer.
Brandon Holstrom, Red Cross’ response coordinator in Ottumwa, said if the project is successful, ORLF has said it wants to fund similar projects in the future.
“The goal is not just to put one in a home, it’s to make sure they’re fully operational,” Cataldi said.
Ottumwa has been plagued by structure fires this year — 30, to be exact. That’s a record high, said Fire Chief Tony Miller. But only one house had a working smoke alarm. Thankfully, there have been zero fatalities.
“It’s a tragedy waiting to happen,” said City Attorney Joni Keith.
In 2012, there were 42 fire fatalities in Iowa, according to the Iowa State Fire Marshal’s Office. In the majority of the fires, either there were no smoke alarms or they weren’t working. In that same year, 217 lives were saved by properly working smoke alarms.
“It’s amazing more people don’t die in fires,” Cataldi said.
Now, when the OFD responds to a medical call, they check smoke alarms before they leave the house, Miller said. If the alarm doesn’t work, firefighters will set a date to come back and install one for free. If the battery is dead but the alarm works, firefighters will run down to the truck to grab new batteries and install them.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 10,343 households in Ottumwa, approximately 4 percent of which are renter-occupied; the rest are owner-occupied. It would seem that rented housing is more likely to have working smoke alarms, Keith said, due to required inspections.
“That’s the hope, but from experience I can tell you that’s not necessarily true,” Cataldi said.
Because there are so many households and there’s no way the project could cover all of them, should this project target a specific neighborhood? Keith asked.
No, Miller said, because the problem is that this year’s fires have not had one cause or been concentrated in one neighborhood.
The group decided to pair the United Way’s Day of Caring on Sept. 11 with the smoke alarm installation project. Not only does the day focus on volunteerism, but the memory of the 9/11 attacks places an emphasis on those firefighters, police officers and other public safety officials who died that day.
Marie Zoromski, UWWC community impact associate, said 60 to 100 volunteers generally turn out for the Day of Caring. For this project, which could have a significant, personal impact on each household, she expects far more volunteers would rise to the occasion.
Volunteers, firefighters and Red Cross staff will head out in teams of three to four to canvass up to 300 households in Ottumwa. If the homeowner is present and allows the team to come in, they’ll check the smoke alarms and if they don’t work, the team will install them for free and educate the homeowner on fire safety. If no one is home, the team will leave notice that if the home’s smoke alarms don’t work, they can call the fire department, who will come out and install them for free.
To volunteer, call United Way at 641-682-1264. The UWWC’s Day of Caring website goes live on Aug. 15. For more information on the project, call Red Cross at 641-682-4571.
— To follow reporter Chelsea Davis on Twitter, head to twitter.com/chelsealeedavis.