Baltimore firefighters install smoke alarms, free of charge

After giving his three-story Hampden rental home a quick inspection, firefighters informed Alex McAbee that he only had one smoke detector. And without batteries, it was functioning more as an ugly wall decoration than a safety device.

McAbee, 30, standing in the kitchen wearing socks and shorts and cooking an Indian turkey-and-peas dish, asked if there was any kind of charge to have four smoke detectors installed. Nope, firefighter Michael Hineline replied.

"Then do what you gotta do," McAbee told them, going back to cooking and giving the firefighters free rein.

Firefighters across Baltimore went out Saturday to offer free smoke detectors to residents, a program that's been in existence for about 15 years. The city is using a federal grant to pay for 10,000 smoke alarms with lithium batteries that can last 10 years, and officials have pledged that any resident who calls 311 requesting a smoke alarm will have it installed free of charge within two hours.

"A lot of the time, you have residents that are renters, and they either take the smoke detectors with them or, over a period of time, they become inoperable and I guess they're not really sure how to get new ones," said Battalion Chief Tom Tosh. "These neighborhood sweeps are huge because we get into the houses and can look around and see if there's any dangers [the homeowner] is not aware of."

The sweeps were prompted by the death of 84-year-old Mary Hines, whose body was found in a fire in her East Baltimore home — though it would later be determined that she had been stabbed before the home went up in flames. Police said Saturday that there were no updates in that case.

Fire-related deaths in Baltimore have been on the decline in recent years. Last year, 17 people lost their lives in fires, the fewest since the Fire Department started keeping records in 1938. The highest number of fatalities was 88 in 1984. Fire officials said 20 people died in fires in 2010 and 25 in 2009.

Still, the U.S. Fire Administration estimates that 12 percent of homes nationwide are without smoke alarms, and a third of those installed are inoperative, typically because of worn-out batteries. In Baltimore, with houses so tightly packed together, a fire in one home can quickly become a problem for an entire block.

Hines had a working a smoke detector, as did an elderly man who died in a house fire Dec. 20 in the 1000 block of Rectory Lane, where firefighters from Engine Company 21 started their canvass Saturday.

Judy Chalk, 67, heard her neighbor's smoke alarm go off, and when she went outside she saw smoke. In the doorway, the homeowner, who has not been identified by the Fire Department, was on fire. Chalk's husband, Kenn, and a nephew called 911 and grabbed a garden hose in an attempt to extinguish the flames, but their efforts were not enough.

"It was a terrible thing," Judy Chalk recalled Saturday. "He had limited sight, and they said the fire was so intense that he probably couldn't see where he was."

The Chalks' home, still decorated for Christmas, lacked a smoke detector on the first floor. Hineline moved a heavy chair out of the way and placed a new alarm above a framed drawing of a lighthouse, on an arch separating two rooms.

"It's good for any neighborhood, plus you get to meet some of the guys," Kenn Chalk said of the firefighters, who invited the Chalks to stop by the Roland Avenue firehouse any time to get biscuits for their schnauzer-poodle mixes.

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