BRATTLEBORO — Ideally, state fire marshals would like to see the number of deaths attributed to fires drop down to zero.
"We had a serious fire-death problem here in Vermont. In fact, we were consistently within the top 10 states with the highest per-capita death rate along with other states like Mississippi, Alabama, West Virginia — a lot of states that don't share similar demographics to Vermont for a whole host of reasons," said Bruce Martin, regional manager for the Vermont Division of Fire Safety.
Over the last 15 years, fire-related deaths in Vermont have mostly been on the decline. In 2000, 22 people died in a fire. Last year, that number was down to seven. Eighteen people died in fires in 2003 but the number has stayed below 9 from 2006 to 2015. Four people died from fire-related incidents in both 2010 and 2013.
The gradual downward trend, Martin said, is in large part due to fire departments across the state having created awareness around fire safety.
"There's been a lot of work done by promoting smoke-alarm usage. That's gone up," he said. "The key to success in any fire event is having good fire detection and having good exiting strategies."
State fire marshals have been part of the success, too.
"The small entity we are in state government has done a lot to help fire departments reduce this fire-death rate. They were at horrendous levels," said Martin. "Now, we're in the middle. We kind of hit a plateau."
Fire Prevention Week began on Sunday. President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation for Fire Prevention Day in 1920. Then President Calvin Coolidge, a Vermonter, took it a step further by extending the day into a week in 1925.
The Brattleboro Fire Department set up a table at Gallery Walk on Friday. Firefighters handed out informational brochures on fire safety.
"We're hitting all of the schools, and some businesses and nursing homes this week," Brattleboro Fire Chief Mike Bucossi said Monday. "We'll be doing different presentations."
From 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, firefighters will be reading a book on fire prevention to children at Brooks Memorial Library. A discussion will follow and some gear will be shown.
"Over the last five years, I don't know if we've made a lot of progress. Because we continue to have fatalities in fires where there's no smoke alarms or they're not working," Bucossi said. "I think we've made big strides. I can't stress enough the importance of smoke and carbon-dioxide alarms in everyone's home. They're life savers. There's just no two ways about it."
Although Bucossi admitted it's difficult to quantify, approximately once or twice a year the Brattleboro department hears from residents who were tipped off to the fire via a smoke alarm.
But in August, two occupants of a residence at Mountain Home Park were killed in a fire. The mobile home did not have smoke detectors.
A big difference in the number of detection devices was attributed to "more comprehensive codes" for rental properties. There's no longer an option for landlords not to have them, Bucossi said, advising that the devices provide "relatively inexpensive protection" to keep families safe.
"It's not the flames that kill. It's the smoke," Bucossi said. "People think they will wake up in the nighttime to the smell of smoke but the smoke actually lulls them into a deeper sleep until it renders them unconscious. So the early warning from a smoke detector is just so important to alert people to the problem."
Bucossi also recommended closing bedroom doors at night. Having them shut, he said, buys people extra time to escape in a fire.
"People don't think about it," he added. "It's just one of those things that's so simple to do and can make such a difference in an emergency."
Once out of a burning building, Martin said, people should stay out.
"It's a very hostile environment. That's why firefighters wear a huge amount of protective gear," he said. "You can't go back in."
Related to smoke alarms, this year's Fire Prevention Week message is "don't wait, check the date." Every device should have a date telling when it expires. They are meant to be replaced every 10 years.
"Every residence — whether it's a rental, an apartment or condo, or even a single family home — has to have smoke alarms. It has to have photoelectric smoke alarms," Martin said. "We only recognize photoelectric. Also, in rental properties — buildings we have jurisdiction in — we require the alarms to be hot-wired with battery backup because that improves their reliability."
Since 2005, the state has required carbon-monoxide alarms in every building where people sleep. Legislation came about after carbon monoxide killed one person in Burlington in January that year and sent eight others to the hospital. The survivors suffered long-term effects after the incident, according to Martin.
The majority of fires occur at residential dwellings, Martin said. According to statistics on structure fires in 2015, 50 percent were in residences.
"That's consistent with national statistics. Probably nationally, it's 80 percent that are in residential properties," Martin said. "We're consistently over that and almost all our fire deaths are residential. That's where people spend the most time. And still, most fires are caused by human activity."
A large percentage of fires are caused by smoking-related incidents, Martin said, meaning "careless disposal" of cigarettes or other smoking materials.
Cooking is another "huge cause" for fires, he said, pointing at a dormitory fire at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire on Oct. 1. A Hibachi grill was left on a rooftop. Three-hundred students were temporarily displaced, Martin said. Over a longer term, about 70 students will be looking for other housing.
"Fire is responsible for much more property loss than any combination of natural disasters — flood, wind damage, hail, all the other weather factors combined — and far and away responsible for more injury and death than any other cause in the home," said Martin.
Asked where improvements could be made in Vermont, he said, "I think the biggest problem we see is places that don't have smoke alarms, that don't have that basic level of detection. They're either absent or not working."
Close to 10,000 inspections are handled annually by his agency's field staff. A significant portion are residential apartments or ski houses, said Martin.
"Way too many of the existing buildings don't have a good level of protection. That's a code enforcement-compliancy problem that's tough to solve," he said. "One way is better public education — the media emphasizing the importance of smoke alarms, creating a more realistic picture of what risk exists when you go home and go to sleep at night. Most people feel pretty safe when they go to sleep at night but there's a real element of risk, especially here in Vermont where buildings are older and there isn't a program of regular inspection checking to make sure alarms are working. We rely on building owners and landlords to do it on their own."
Martin's team brings fire-safety modules to schools around Vermont during Fire Prevention Week and at other times of the year. Children can be "really good advocates" that can take the message home, he said.
In the beginning of the school year, there's a fire-safety poster contest. Every school is encouraged to participate. Thirteen posters are selected for an annual calendar.
"Once we get calendars printed, we distribute something like 20,000 to generally every 2nd and 3rd grader in the state through the schools," said Martin.
Call Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273.