Holland firefighters keep new smoke detectors and extra batteries in their vehicles and often install them on EMS calls.
“We’re called there for something totally different, like somebody’s got chest pain or trouble breathing, but you hear that chirp from a bad battery,” said Holland Fire Marshal Bret Groendyke. “The engine crews will solve the problem on-site.”
Ensuring that homes have working smoke detectors is key to preventing injury and death, experts say, especially as statewide fire deaths jumped 144% in the first 34 days of 2022 compared to the same days in 2021, according to the state Bureau of Fire Services.
As statewide fire deaths rose, Holland has had no fatal fires so far in 2022, Groendyke said.
“We’ve gotten lucky,” Groendyke said. “I hate to attribute it to that. I like to think that the educational efforts that we’re doing are working.”
Groendyke said the fire department is reaching out to city residents and educating them on the importance of smoke detectors, which helps prevent often-fatal smoke inhalation.
The top cause of fatal fires in Michigan –– smoking –– is preventable, said Groendyke.
People improperly throw away smoking materials and often leave them by a doorway, he said.
“It traps people in the house, and that’s why one of the leading causes of fatal fires in our state is careless smoking,” Groendyke said.
Getting trapped is dangerous, not because of the fire itself, but due to the smoke, Groendyke said.
“It’s the worst, most toxic part of a fire,” he said. “It’s an inhalation hazard, and anything that is an inhalation hazard will debilitate you quickly.”
Most fire-related deaths are caused by smoke inhalation, Groendyke said.
From 2017 to 2019, smoke inhalation caused 34.6% of fire deaths nationwide, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, which is a branch of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The harmful effects of smoke inhalation are caused by a combination of carbon monoxide and hydrogen monoxide poisoning.
So far in 2022, there have been 18 fires resulting in 22 deaths in Michigan according to the Bureau of Fire Services.
In February, a fatal fire in Jackson killed one person, and another in Acme in Grand Traverse County killed another. In January, victims included two in Houghton County’s Laird Township, a child in Detroit and two in Norwich Township near Big Rapids.
In 2021, Holland had no fire-related deaths out of 45 building fires. The last such death there occured in 2014, and that had been the first fatality since 1996, according to the city’s Department of Public Safety.
In 2021, six fires resulted in injury, Groendyke said. Of those, five involved someone being trapped, he said.
In most of those instances, fires began in rooms without smoke alarms, Groendyke said.
Smoke alarms are one of the best ways to avoid smoke inhalation and potentially fatal consequences of fires, said Jeff Roberts, the president of the Michigan Association of Fire Chiefs.
But older residents often have broken alarms or don’t trust them when they do go off, said Roberts, the fire chief in Wixom.
“It’s definitely more common that aged individuals are dying from these fires,” he said.
According to the Michigan Fire Inspectors Society, 64% of fire death victims in 2022 were between 40 and 79.
“The single most important thing we can do is have early warning systems, such as our smoke detectors and fire alarms, and get out when they go off,” Roberts said.
For those without smoke detectors or with broken ones, Groendyke said Holland residents can ask the fire department to install them.
Roberts said that type of service is available to all Michigan residents. The Bureau of Fire Services gives out smoke detectors through local fire departments.
Roberts said with such programs, there’s no excuse not to have a smoke detector, and the consequences of not having one could be fatal.
“It always happens to the next guy, but to everybody else you’re the next guy,” he said.
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