One week after a woman lost her life in a house fire on Caballo Lake Drive in East El Paso in March,firefighters were knocking on doors in the neighborhood.
A crew of representatives from El Paso Fire Department’s Community Risk Reduction Division dropped off flyers and pamphlets detailing fire safety tips, as well as information regarding the city’s smoke alarm program.
“Smoke alarms are a tool and they play a big part in that they are a first-line of defense to alarm residents that something is happening in the home, especially when they’re asleep,” said Lt. James Schaerfl with the Community Risk Reduction section of EPFD.
The effort was part of a program called Return to the Scene, where firefighters return to residential areas after a fire to raise awareness on prevention and safety measures. They offer to perform inspections of homes and install smoke alarms.
“The best smoke alarms in the world don’t put out any fires, so we want no fires to take place in the first place, which is why prevention is always first,” Schaerfl said.
Basic smoke alarm detectors only serve one purpose: to detect smoke. Internal sensors in smoke alarms are what detect a possible fire and initiate the alarm ring. Combination smoke alarms typically combine a smoke alarm with a carbon monoxide detector.
“We definitely recommend that every home have a working carbon monoxide detector,” Schaerfl said. “If it’s a two-level home, we would want one on both floors.”
The Fire Prevention program at EPFD has installed more than 6,000 free smoke alarms for residents in the past five years, according to the fire department.
Only a few hundred smoke alarms were being installed each year, until a partnership The American Red Cross began three years ago. Now, the fire department estimates that on average, between 1,000 to 1,300 smoke alarms are installed in El Paso homes every year.
The smoke alarms and installations are free to residents. Up to three smoke alarms can be installed in a home if they are being supplied by The American Red Cross program. A limit of two smoke alarms is imposed if they are being supplied by the fire department, in order to ensure an equal spread of funds to reach as many residents as possible.
“Smoke alarms with ten-year batteries are convenient for us to install and for people to use them because we can put them in places that are challenging to get to, where it’s a good placement for the alarm, and they don’t have to constantly go up and reach them to switch out the batteries,” Schaerfl said. “If an alarm is older than 10 years, we recommend they switch it out.”
El Paso saw a decrease in fire incidents each year between 2007 and 2015. In 2016, there were 1,400 fire incidents, about 100 more than the 1,300 reported in 2015, but still substantially under the 2,000 fire incidents reported in 2007. Last year only had 1,300 fire incidents reported, according to the fire department.
Trash fires are the most common type of fire incident for the city. Over 2,600 trash fires have taken place within the last ten years. About 18,500 overall fire incidents have occurred in the city in the last ten years.
“What prevents a fire is good fire prevention techniques used by the resident,” Schaerfl said.
Fire safety classes that cover fire prevention techniques in homes, schools, and workplace are provided by The Community Risk Reduction Division, through the EPFD. Classes for live fire extinguisher training are provided at the EPFD Safety and Health Outreach Center located at 5415 Trowbridge Dr. in Central El Paso.
“Everybody needs to make a fire threat assessment; what would a fire do to them in their homes,” Schaerfl said.
Fires can easily start when people walk away from the stove when cooking, have open candles or overloaded electrical outlets with power stripes that aren’t surge protected, Schaerfl said.
In the winter, space heaters that are way too close to flammable materials, left on for hours when there’s nobody home is another common source of fires,” he added.
“It’s typically the human that causes the fire, and that’s our greatest opportunity to make change on how humans view their environment and make it more fire safe,” Schaerfl said.
The El Paso Fire Prevention Division encourages residents to take part in the program in order to ensure a safe home environment for everyone.
Residents seeking free smoke alarms are advised to call 3-1-1 to schedule an appointment for the installation process.