The Importance of Smoke Detectors

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fire, fire fighterMost of us go to great lengths to avoid uncomfortable situations. Fortunately, Portland farmer Robert Law and his firefighting colleagues aren’t quite like the rest of us.

“I guess it does take a special individual to run into a burning building when everybody else is evacuating,” admits Law, a dairy farmer-turned full-time firefighter for the Portland Fire Department. “And we find ourselves around people at some very difficult times. We stand right there in the middle a lot of times, between what someone had before and what all they’ve now lost.”

One of those especially uncomfortable moments came one Christmas Eve as Law and his fellow firefighters battled a house fire.

“We finally stepped back, took a breath, and then realized we were looking at a family that had lost everything, and tomorrow was Christmas Day,” recalls Law, now a fire inspector for the city of Portland.

“One of our guys reached through his gear and into his pockets and said, ‘I’ve got this.’ And then I did the same and before we left there, a local store manager had been contacted and promised to keep his store open as late as needed, and that family left with $1,200 that night to begin trying to restore some degree of normalcy to their lives.”

A working smoke detector made a difference that particular night, Law says. Possessions can be replaced; Tennessee Farmers Mutual Insurance Co., for instance, paid out an average of $58 million on 2,282 fire claims in each of the past three years.

But insurance cannot replace lives. And despite the efforts of paid and volunteer firefighters, the state ranks second in the nation for the greatest number of fire deaths each year. On average, more than 130 Tennesseans die annually as a result of fire.

Their stories should make us all uncomfortable, especially when we consider one simple but startling fact: People are three times more likely to survive a residential fire if smoke alarms are installed and working.

But too many Tennesseans, Law says, ignore those odds and take life-threatening chances.

“Too many times, that second answer is‘No, there was no battery in it,’ ” he says.

“And then it’s a no-brainer as to what happened. That detector went to chirping [for low battery] and they just pulled it down, took the battery out and put it back up.”

Law is convinced, however, that educational efforts are making a difference.

“We get all kinds of responses when we teach in schools,” he says. “When we ask what a smoke detector is, we’ll have some kid say, ‘That’s the thing that goes off when Momma’s cooking.’ But they’re listening and learning, and children find interesting ways to get their parents to listen to them about home exit drills and smoke detectors.”

Law, whose family has been active with the Sumner County Farm Bureau for years, started as a volunteer firefighter in 1990 and went to work full-time in 1995 with the Portland Fire Department. He still helps farm a 750-acre cow/calf operation in northern Sumner County when he’s not at the fire hall or teaching fire education.

Law’s message is rather simple: Smoke detectors and sprinklers save lives and property. He doesn’t mind being uncomfortable when he’s fighting a fire, but he gets very uncomfortable when people refuse to be responsible when it comes to fire safety. And for those of us who are responsible, we can be a bit more comfortable knowing the Robert Laws are out there.


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