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The Right Time to Share Info About Fire Safety at Home

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By Bill Primavera

As soon as I read about the apartment building fire in the Bronx that killed 17 people, I went to the door of my condo at Yorktown’s Trump Park, opened it and assured myself that it closed shut on its own. That’s because New York City Mayor Eric Adams said that the door to the apartment where the blaze started may have failed to close as it was supposed to, allowing thick smoke to spread.

Soon after I moved here, a neighbor named Dan Potter introduced himself to me as a retired New York City firefighter. He said he had read a column I wrote about “Fireman Joe,” a local retired firefighter who instructed schoolchildren about fire safety in the home. 

Dan told me not to forget about seniors who have a much higher risk of dying from fire in their homes than the general population and that he had led educational programs for them on the subject. I told him that I wanted to know more because as much as I try to avoid the thought, I am definitely a senior citizen.

Dan had been at the World Trade Center on 9/11, arriving between the times the first and second planes hit the towers. His wife, Jean, was working on the 81st floor of 1 World Trade Center, and for some hours he didn’t know whether she had made it out of the building. 

After searching at the site and at his apartment just a block away and not finding her, he collapsed on a bench in despair and a passing photographer captured the moment. That photograph appeared around the world and now is featured in the 9/11 Memorial Museum next to Dan’s helmet with his ladder number “31” which he wore that day. 

When Dan and I met, we started our interview with a pop quiz: “Do you know why Fire Prevention Week is the first week in October?” he asked. When I confessed that I had no idea, he informed me that it was enacted by Congress after the Great Fire in Chicago, which had happened at that time of year. 

“So tell me more that I don’t know about fire safety,” I asked.

“While most people have smoke detectors in their homes, the batteries are frequently dead,” Dan said. “Or they can be cooking, the alarm goes off, they might take them down, take the batteries out and not put them back,” he continued.

But some really surprising information followed.

“Citizens over 65 are twice as likely to die in a fire than the general population,” Dan said. “And once they reach 85, they are five times as likely to die in a fire as the general population, and in the same room in which the fire starts.”

By that age, a senior has less mobility, they don’t have the same sense of smell, may be on medication and not as alert or they may smoke in bed, be careless in their dress, be cooking and their clothes catch fire.

Dan’s next question caught me off guard. “Have you ever been in a fire?”

“No,” I responded.

“Do you think you really know what fire is? Do you think it has sound? Do you know how fast it is? How hot it is?”

I didn’t have answers for him. He took out his computer and showed me a controlled demonstration of a sofa catching fire. Within 30 seconds, there was intense heat. Within one minute there was no way that a person could stand. Within two minutes, the room was engulfed in flames and within three minutes there was total conflagration. All the while, there was silence, not the crackling of wood and the roar we would expect from a fire.

“When we hear stories about expecting a parent to run back into a house to rescue a child, sadly the heat is so intense, so much more than anyone has ever experienced,” Dan said. “It just doesn’t happen.” I remember thinking that that is what happened at the World Trade Center when those poor souls had the terrible choice to make of being burned alive or jumping to their deaths.

It’s scary to consider the number of people who live in multi-unit condos and apartments that are of combustible construction. I would urge readers to be aware of escape instructions, and for those of you living in single-family dwellings, check every smoke detector in the house and, again, be prepared in an emergency to get out.

For more information about fire safety, visit www.nfpa.org.

Bill Primavera is a realtor associated with William Raveis Real Estate and founder of Primavera Public Relations, Inc., the longest-running public relations agency in Westchester (www.PrimaveraPR.com). His real estate site is www.PrimaveraRealEstate.com. To engage the services of The Home Guru and his team to market your home for sale, call 914-522-2076.

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