Smoke detectors may save lives, but they can only do so if they work.

That’s why the American Red Cross of Southern Indiana, Seymour Fire Department and Medical Reserve Corps recently spent a day examining fire detectors and replacing them for free in a neighborhood on the city’s southeast side. They also spent time talking about fire safety and prevention.

“Our goal is to reduce the lives of people that are killed by home fires by 28 percent by 2019,” Theo Boots said Saturday. She is executive director of the American Red Cross of Southern Indiana.

As part of the national Red Cross program, chapters across the country are teaming with local volunteers for the third year for a home fire prevention campaign to reduce fire deaths one home at a time.

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“Usually, after roughly 10 years, a smoke detector needs replaced,” Seymour firefighter Marty Overshiner said. “Early detection is better. A fire doubles in size roughly every minute it burns.”

Overshiner, who is one of the department’s inspectors, said that’s why smoke detectors are such an important part of an emergency plan.

Boots agreed.

“Once a fire starts, people have two minutes to get out of the building before they succumb to smoke inhalation, and often, sleeping people won’t wake up at the smell of smoke,” she said.

Overshiner said when firefighters respond to a fatal fire, they often find the smoke detectors were not functioning.

There’s no correct formula for how many smoke detectors should be in a home, although they should all be located on the upper portion of the walls or on ceilings, as that’s where smoke accumulates, he said.

“You usually want one on either end of the house and one in the bedrooms so they are more likely to wake sleeping people,” Overshiner said.

The canvassed areas generally involve neighborhoods across the country that are more likely to be hit by home fires and areas where inhabitants are more likely to not have working smoke detectors, usually because of monetary issues.

“It’s called resiliency,” Boots said. “It’s how well neighborhoods are prepared for accidents of various types. We are trying to make sure that we hit areas of lower resiliency to make them into more resilient ones.”

At the home of Darlene Harris in Seymour, the group replaced several fire detectors that were more than 20 years old.

“It’s an awesome (program),” Harris said. ” Everyone needs one, and people may not have one or be able to afford it.”

The program, however, is not limited to areas selected for canvassing.

Anyone interested in having a group come and inspect their home and place free smoke detectors and talk to their family about ways to be prepared may call the American Red Cross of Southern Indiana at 812-522-3888.

“We can’t canvass everyone, but they can call us,” Boots said.

Occasionally Saturday, the group came across homes where language was a barrier. That’s when Maria Carrasquillo, a specialist with the American Red Cross, was able to help out.

Carrasquillo, who is fluent in English and Spanish, led one of the teams but was able to help the others as needed.

“The reactions of that family are very typical,” Carrasquillo said after a family expressed gratitude for their inspection. “All of the communities are involved. They call friends and family and get us to go help there, as well.”

The Seymour Fire Department has a program where residents can request a fire alarm or new batteries. Firefighters also will install the devices and test them free of charge.

Carrasquillo said the Red Cross is very supportive of communities that support each other.

“We love the idea of neighbors helping neighbors,” she said.

Nationally, Boots said there are more than 70,000 home disasters a year, and 60,000 of those involve fires.

“It’s killing people,” she said.

Boots said volunteers Saturday replaced 60 to 70 home fire detectors, including the 12 she and Overshiner’s team did.

“Again, we can’t canvass everyone, but they can call in,” Boots said.

Boots said the group also talked with the residents of homes they visited about another regional disaster issue — tornadoes and flooding — that can be prevalent this time of year.

Fire Chief Brad Lucas said this isn’t the first time such an effort has been organized in the city, but this is on a much larger scale.

“Two years ago, a group from Cummins installed fire alarms, but it was in a different neighborhood,” Lucas said. “We had a fatality in a fire a couple of weeks ago, and there was no smoke detector in that home. And we’ve been in homes where there are detectors in closets or drawers, but they aren’t installed. That’s what weighs on my mind.”

How to start getting prepared

  • Know what emergencies and disasters are most likely to occur in the area.
  • Have a family disaster plan and practice it.
  • Have an emergency preparedness kit.
  • At least one member of the household should be trained in first aid and CPR/AED.
  • Set up an appointment to have fire alarms checked or volunteer to help set up fire detectors by calling the American Red Cross of Southern Indiana at 812-522-3888.
  • Have a smartphone? Get the Red Cross app.

At a glance

More lives are lost every year to home fires than to all major disasters. For information on smoke alarms, call American Red Cross at 812-522-3888.

Anualmente, los incendios residenciales cobran más vidas que los grandes desastres naturales. Para más información, contáctenos a: 812-522-3888.

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Aaron Piper is a photographer and reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at apiper@tribtown.com or 812-523-7057.