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Firefighters remind residents on smoke detector safety

Worcester Fire Lieutenant Annmarie Pickett replaced a smoke alarm for an older resident.
Worcester Fire Lieutenant Annmarie Pickett replaced a smoke alarm for an older resident.(Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

When firefighters visited Albert Del Fuoco’s house in North Reading earlier this week, they were there to help the 71-year-old multiple sclerosis patient get into his car for a medical appointment.

But while at his home, firefighters learned that Del Fuoco’s residence did not have working smoke alarms, so they returned Wednesday to install new ones and carbon monoxide detectors too.

“Some houses have no detectors,” said North Reading Firefighter Vincent Zarella, who installed smoke alarms this week at three homes that lacked the safety devices. “It scares the daylights out of me.”

What happened in North Reading has been taking place in communities across the state, as firefighters try to educate the public about the importance of having operating smoke alarms in residences, replacing old ones, and ensuring they have working batteries.

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Smoke alarms should be replaced every 10 years because they become less effective over time, said state Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan.

“We now have old smoke alarms in many of our houses,” Coan said. “The effectiveness of the sensors decrease over time.”

The message is being amplified in recognition of Fire Prevention Week, which is wrapping up Saturday. This year’s campaign urges people to have working smoke alarms in homes and to test them monthly.

In addition to North Reading, Boxborough, Fall River, Lynn, Natick, and Worcester are among the fire departments with programs to help residents.

Lynn’s Fire Department has been aggressive in confronting the problem, running a yearlong campaign to install and replace smoke alarms in residences across the city, which has a high percentage of recent immigrants.

Fire Lieutenant Israel Gonzalez, the city’s chief inspector and a fire prevention officer, said he encountered residents who did not know what a smoke alarm was or had installed them in the wrong location or had removed the batteries.

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Worcester Fire Lieutenant Annmarie Pickett displayed some of the worst offenders she has encountered in her role with the Fire Prevention Division.
Worcester Fire Lieutenant Annmarie Pickett displayed some of the worst offenders she has encountered in her role with the Fire Prevention Division.(Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

“The immigrants are at the biggest risk; they come from all around the world, and they didn’t have smoke alarms,” Gonzalez said. “They don’t see the importance to have smoke alarms, and they didn’t have them in their homes.”

Lynn paid for the program with a $295,388 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Gonzalez said. The department promoted the program in multiple ways, including newspaper ads and billboards, and by distributing fliers in the schools, he said.

The outreach effort had citizens submitting applications for smoke detectors in droves, Gonzalez said. Some days firefighters went to as many as 22 homes to do installations, he said, and by the time the program concluded last month, nearly 1,700 families had received working alarms.

The program paid immediate dividends in some cases, Gonzalez said. In one instance, firefighters installed smoke alarms in a single-family home that had none. Two weeks later, there was an electrical fire at the residence, he said. The resident, who was asleep when the fire started, was alerted to the blaze by her new smoke alarms, Gonzalez said.

On another occasion, firefighters installing smoke alarms in a two-family home where several children lived encountered a mattress that was smoldering from the heat of a light bulb it was leaning against, Gonzalez said. “We averted a crisis,” he said.

Working smoke alarms double your chance of surviving a fire, officials said. On March 31, two people died in a fire in a Fitchburg residence where there were no working smoke or carbon monoxide alarms, according to the state Department of Fire Services.

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By April 10, the agency said, there had been 16 civilian deaths this year from fires where there were no working smoke alarms.

Further, more than half of fire-related fatalities occur between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., when many people are sleeping and not alert, meaning a smoke alarm is the best chance of survival, officials said.

Fire Marshal Coan said firefighters search for smoke alarms after fatal fires.

“Many, many times we can’t find those smoke alarms present in the building, or they weren’t properly maintained,” Coan said.

In Worcester, Fire Lieutenant Annmarie Pickett said she started canvassing neighborhoods to educate the public after a fatal fire there a few years ago.

Now she goes into homes to install new smoke alarms and review other fire safety measures, like having an escape plan. Pickett said she also flags dangerous conditions she encounters, such as residents using ovens for storage and having frayed electrical cords.

“We’ll go room by room, because fire is understandable and predictable. Therefore fire is preventable,” she said.

In North Reading, Del Fuoco said he Is thankful for the help. The program that assisted him is designed for senior citizens and paid for by grants and donations, Zarella said.

“I thought it was very kind of them to do it,” Del Fuoco said.

A new smoke detector went on duty in a Worcester senior citizen’s basement, thanks to Fire Lieutenant Annmarie Pickett.
A new smoke detector went on duty in a Worcester senior citizen’s basement, thanks to Fire Lieutenant Annmarie Pickett.(Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@lauracrimaldi.