University of Detroit Mercy students (left to right) Cassie Hayward of Jackson, Brandon Carey of Grand Rapids and Thea Ante of Rochester Hills, carry boxes of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors to their vehicles to go out into a northwest Detroit neighborhood to install them in homes. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
Detroit - Two decades ago Joe Wilson was one of the first responders to the scene of a Detroit fire where six children had been trapped inside a burning home. The children, ages 9 years to 7 months, were transported to Children's Hospital of Michigan where they later died of their injuries. When the responders made it into the home, they saw a smoke alarm sitting on the counter, uninstalled and unable to warn the family.
"Once you deal with a kid that has been burned, you'll never be the same again," said Wilson, who is now the assistant superintendent of Detroit's EMS services. "Because it's almost 100 percent preventable."
That was when Wilson knew he wanted to get involved with the Kohl's Injury Prevention Program at the Children's Hospital. The program, which started up after the deaths, provides free smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors, among other safety equipment, to families throughout the city.
On Saturday, Roberta Davis, who was hired as the program's injury prevention coordinator six years ago, led a team of University of Detroit Mercy students in installing alarms and detectors in 100 different homes. The day began at Wilson's church, the House of Prayer and Praise on the city's westside.
"When those six children came in for fire treatment, they said, this will never happen again," said Davis. "We don't just hand them the smoke detector, we put them in, we give them a fire plan and burn safety information so they can be prepared."
The program is a partnership between Kohl's, which provides the alarms and detectors, the Children's Hospital of Detroit, which educates, trains and coordinates and volunteers from churches, schools and other groups.
The program has installed alarms and detectors in more than 1,100 homes during the last six years, says Davis. And it's already made a difference.
"There have been 10 homes that we know of where we've installed smoke alarms that had fires and the 45 people in those homes made it out," said Davis. "And then last November, there was a home where five people got out of the house because they were warned about carbon monoxide."
Prevention is the key focus for Davis because fire can be prevalent, especially in a city like Detroit where many homes were built in the 1920s and 1930s in close proximity to one another. Compounding the problem, she says, is vacant structures, which often can catch fire or be set on fire, next to occupied homes.
"With abandoned homes, those definitely don't have working smoke detectors and nobody's going to come out and warn you," said Davis.
According to the U.S Fire Administration, there were 11 deaths per million people in the country in 2009, the most recent data available. Michigan's rate was higher than the national average with 16.4 deaths per million individuals.
Nearly two-thirds of home fire deaths result from fires in dwellings with no smoke alarm, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
For carbon monoxide, there were 986 individuals in Michigan that were unintentionally poisoned in 2010, according to a recent report by the Michigan Department of Community Health and Michigan State University. Of those, 26 died.
Davis began the day training 40 students from a sorority and fraternity at University of Detroit Mercy. He showed them how to install the detectors and how to present the homeowners with fire safety information.
Andrea Katsiyiannis, a 21-year-old Junior nursing student and president of the Sigma Sigma Sigma sorority, said the best part of the volunteer program is being able to meet with people one-on-one.
"We go to school in the city but a lot of people don't go into the city," said Katsiyiannis, who has worked with the program before. "We helped install those fire alarms that helped save lives."
Kappa Delta Rho president Brysen Keith, said the families make an impression that sticks.
"I remember the first house I went to. There were three of the cutest little kids and it was a single mom raising these kids by herself," said the 20-year-old Junior civil engineering student. "She was so grateful. We ended up spending 20 minutes just talking with her. It makes you happy you can help."
Michigan law requires a smoke alarm and carbon monoxide detector in every home. But keeping up to code can be difficult for some homeowners, whether that's for financial reasons or even just something that slips from the mind.
That was the case for Penny Branch, who says she forgot to check her existing smoke detectors to see if they still worked. When her 16 and 9-year-old grandchildren started to stay with her on the weekends, she knew she needed to keep them safe.
"I just didn't pay attention to it," said Branch, 61, who on Saturday had three smoke alarms installed on three floors of her house as well as a basement carbon monoxide detector, her first. Davis told her that her existing smoke alarms hadn't been working.
Branch says she is surprised how easy it is to overlook something like checking smoke alarms and it's particularly surprising given that about 10 years ago, there was an electrical fire in her old house which destroyed the upstairs bedrooms. Her grandson and her mother were at home at the time and weren't warned until they could smell the smoke.
"Just knowing my mom and my grandchild could have been gone, you'd think it would be right here," said Branch, gesturing to her head. "They're precious. It's kicking me that I didn't think about it."
To get your home on the list for a smoke alarm and carbon monoxide detector, or for information on how to volunteer with the Kohl's Injury Prevention Program, visit www.childrensdmc.org/kipp or call (313) 745-0072.