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Area Fire Officials 'Sound the Alarm' on Fire Safety

Firefighters encourage residents to make sure their smoke detectors are working properly at this time of year.

NORWALK — About 20 fire officials representing most of the Fairfield County towns convened at the Norwalk Fire Department’s temporary headquarters on Fairfield Avenue Friday to express their concern about a rash of residential fires in the region since September — including the tragic that — and to ask the media for help in raising awareness about basic fire safety.

There have been about 20 serious residential fires in Fairfield County since Sept. 1, 2011, ten of them resulting in at least one death; seven of them caused by improperly discarded fireplace ashes, Chief Denis McCarthy of the Norwalk Fire Department said before a backdrop of ladder and pumper trucks in the warehouse-like facility. Every one of those fires, he said, could have been prevented if only the homeowners had followed basic fire safety guidelines. In a majority of those incidents, the residence where the fire started did not have working smoke detectors, if it had them at all.

McCarthy said traditionally, the fire chiefs and fire marshals of DEMHS Region 1 (including Bridgeport, , , , , , , , , , , and ) have reminded residents to check their smoke detectors when they set their clocks for Daylight Savings — but in the wake of recent fire tragedies in the region, the group wanted to send a stronger message than just a simple reminder to replace batteries.

"This year we find it necessary to remind people of the basic precautions," Chief McCarthy said, adding that homeowners should have working smoke detectors "on every floor of your house... and in every bedroom" and should also make sure they have "two ways out of every room." He also urged that families check their homes for safety hazards that could cause fires — and practice their escape plans..

The concern, McCarthy said, isn’t just that there’s been an increase in the number of house fires, compared to previous years, it's also that firefighters are noticing that more homeowners are overlooking or ignoring basic fire safety protocols, resulting in a higher-than-average number of fire-related deaths and injuries.

"When these tragic incidents are reported by different media outlets, they appear isolated and independent from one another," Chief McCarthy said. "We are here to tell you otherwise. We have connected the dots and they tell a somber story — our neighbors are dying from carelessness, ignorance, a lack of basic safety concepts, and apathy."

Fire officials pointed to an alarming increase in the number of fires caused by improperly discared fireplace ashes, including the tragic that took five lives; a Jan. 16 structure fire at ; and a Jan. 18 structure fire at . These fires, they said, could have easily been avoided if the ashes had been disposed of in a proper metal container with a lid, which can be purchased at any hardware store.

What's more fire officials are more frequently discovering that smoke detectors are disabled or completely absent.

"We believe there has been a shift in people’s attitudes toward fire safety," McCarthy said. "And the shift is — smoke detectors are not being maintained — people are not replacing them when they’re supposed to — they're disabling them when they get set off by cooking, and they’re pulling the batteries out for radios and toys."

McCarthy when he used to respond to fire calls in the 1980s, "people were better protected — it was less frequent to find [the smoke detectors] disabled." That was when battery powered smoke detectors were relatively new on the market.

But today, "with all the distraction in our lives — we're all busy — safety is no longer at the forefront of life," McCarthy said. "Some of us feel invincible — when in fact we are very vulnerable."

"We can't enter another season and allow this epidemic to continue," McCarthy said.

Officials cited recent fires caused by cigarette smoking and unattended holiday candles as additional examples of rising carelessness and complacency.

Other fire officials at Friday's press conference included Bridgeport Fire Marshal Bill Cosgrove, Darien Fire Marshal Bob Buch, Monroe Fire Marshal Bill Davin, New Canaan Fire Chief Ed Karl, Stratford Fire Chief Robert McGrath, Rowayton Fire Chief Glen Carlson, Weston Fire Chief John Pokorney and Weston Fire Chief Paul Milositz.

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