Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis was surprised to learn that only three in 10 homes in B.C. have functioning smoke alarms. He wants to improve that statistic with a strong awareness and education program.

Needless fire deaths targeted

Surrey and the province to crack down on lack of functioning smoke alarms in homes.

Have you ever popped the battery out of your smoke alarm when food overcooks and sets it off?

It’s a seemingly harmless practice that could prove deadly.

Scores of people are dying needlessly in residential fires in Surrey and across the country every year, simply because their smoke alarms are either broken or have been disabled.

In fact, even smoke alarms that haven’t been tampered with can fail to function over time.

And it’s primarily the young, poor, elderly, addicted and aboriginals who are dying in the fires, according to a report published by the University College of the Fraser Valley.

Last March, nine families were displaced from their Whalley apartments after a fire in one of the suites spread through the building.

The original unit did not have a functioning smoke alarm.

Fortunately, no one was killed in the blaze, but one person was taken to hospital, treated, and released.

A study released today looked at 50,000 residential fires in Alberta, B.C. and Ontario over a five-year period. Out of those fires, there were 663 deaths – 500 of which (75.4 per cent of the total) were attributable to a non-functioning smoke alarm.

Using those numbers, Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis, one of the study’s authors and president of the B.C. Fire Chiefs’ Association, said if every home in Canada had functioning smoke alarms, 69 lives could be saved each year – about 10 in Surrey.

The report also showed that in B.C., First Nations people are more than twice as likely to die in a fire. Out of the 137 residential fires that hit aboriginal homes in this province, five resulted in deaths.

That’s equivalent to 36.5 deaths per 1,000 structure fires, where the provincial average is 15.1 deaths per 1,000 structure fires.

Almost one-third of the people who died in fires over the study period were seniors (over 65 years old).

And 28.8 per cent of those who died over the five years were impaired by drugs or alcohol, while 45.2 per cent were asleep.

Not surprisingly, people who died in home fires where no smoke alarm  – or a non-functioning alarm – was present were more likely to have not made an attempt to escape the blaze.

Garis said it’s time to crack down on homes without functioning alarms, adding he was stunned by the difference in the numbers coming from the three provinces.

Only three in 10 homes – about 30 per cent – that catch fire in this province have functioning smoke alarms. It’s a better figure than in Alberta, where just 19 per cent of homes have working alarms. But 43 per cent of  Ontario homes have the devices, largely due to strong legislation requiring them.

“We just need to change that in B.C.,” Garis said, adding more awareness is needed across the country.

“It’s obvious (smoke alarms) save lives,” Garis said. “It’s within our hands, and I’m not going to say it’s going to be easy, but it’s something we should stay focused on.”

He wants to see education campaigns launched by a coalition of partners, including insurance agencies, agencies such as Meals on Wheels, HandiDart and anyone else who can deliver the message that people must check their smoke alarms at home.

It should be done once, preferably twice, a year.

B.C. Minister of Justice Shirley Bond is in Surrey today (Thursday) to launch a smoke alarm awareness campaign, which will reach deep into the community and target high-risk groups.

“She’s agreed to help launch this and become part of a steering committee that will look at some of the medium- and long-term strategies,” Garis said.

The Surrey Fire Department will provide free fire safety inspections and smoke alarms. Those interested can call Captain Peter Choy at 604-543-6762.

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