News From Terre Haute, Indiana

March 7, 2014

Time to check smoke alarms

Family still advocating years after fatal fire with no alarms

Lisa Trigg
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Three years after a house fire on South Nine Street in Terre Haute resulted in the death of three people, a Terre Haute grandmother still wonders if the outcome of that fire would have been different if smoke detectors in the home had been working.

Valerie McCullough has been an outspoken advocate for checking smoke alarms since the March 5, 2011, fire took the life of her daughter Kayla Lewis, McCullough’s granddaughter Gabrielle Cunningham, and Lewis’ stepbrother Jeremiah Dupin.

“It’s been rough for three years. My granddaughter Chloe still has memories of it,” McCullough said recently about the night of the fire. Chloe, who was a toddler at the time, was inside the house with her mother Kayla and sister Gabby when the fire broke out. Chloe remembers being dropped out the window to a rescuer, her grandmother said.

In the aftermath of the fatal blaze, it was reported that the smoke alarms in the rental house did not contain batteries.

As a response to the tragic loss of life, Terre Haute firefighters organized the Protect the Precious project. It took off with an education campaign to teach local school children about fire safety and to remind them to regularly check the smoke alarms in their home. Firefighters also received donations to purchase smoke detectors that have been distributed for free to those in the community who need them.

“There’s no excuse not to have a smoke alarm,” said firefighter Rich Gallagher, an organizer of Protect the Precious. “If people can’t get here to pick one up, we’ll bring it to them. I’ll even install it if they are elderly or disabled and can’t do it themselves.”

If batteries are needed for a smoke alarm that is already installed, Gallagher said, those are available as well.

Just recently, six people died in an Indianapolis house fire, he noted. That house did not have working smoke detectors. A passerby saw the smoke from the electrical fire and alerted rescuers. Since the fire was located in the attic of the house, it had been going for quite a while before it was reported. If a working smoke detector had been inside the attic of the home, it could have given the occupants more time to escape.

“Besides warning people to get out of the house, if they are warned sooner, we get the call to respond sooner, and we get there quicker, and it can save our lives, too,” Gallagher said of the reasoning for having a smoke detector on each level of a home, including basement and attic.

He also encourages families to have an escape plan that they practice regularly, and to talk to their children about how to escape a burning structure.

Gallagher said that children can become scared when they hear a smoke alarm, and unfortunately, some will hide rather than try to escape the smoke and fire. That is why parents should talk to their children about going outside as soon as they hear an alarm sound.

While Gallagher recommends checking smoke detector alarms monthly, a good time to remember to replace smoke detector batteries is with this weekend’s change from standard time to daylight saving time.

Once removed, the used batteries can be stored to be recycled by placing a piece of electrical tape over the connector end of the 9-volt battery. Gallagher warned that 9-volt batteries that are stored together can create their own fire if the connectors touch each other and heat up, and that is the reason for covering the ends with electrical tape.

The Protect the Precious program is also collecting donations for the purchase of more smoke alarms and batteries to be distributed. Gallagher said that when donors give to the program, a label identifying donors is placed on the boxes that are given out.

Anyone wanting to donate to the program, or receive a free smoke alarm or batteries, can contact the headquarters of the Terre Haute Fire Department by calling 812-244-8653. Gallagher said that the department tries to make a same-day response when a call is received.

McCullough said that while it is difficult to speak about the loss her family has experienced, she encourages people to check their smoke alarms and those in the homes of their loved ones.

“It doesn’t take that long to save a life,” she said. “I don’t want to see anyone go through what we’ve gone through. Material things can be replaced, but lives can’t.”

Gallagher agreed.

“It’s hard to talk about,” he said, “but if we can save somebody else the heartache, it’s worth it.”

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.