By Michael Wanzenried/American Red Cross of Alaska
Red Cross of Alaska volunteers participated in the annual Sound the Alarm home fire safety and smoke alarm installation events between April 27 and May 18, 2019. To help reach the national goal of 100,000 smoke alarm installations, volunteers canvased communities across Alaska to install smoke alarms and talk with families about disaster preparedness and home fire safety.
From May 5-9, Red Cross of Alaska volunteers from Anchorage and Juneau combined forces with local Red Cross of Alaska volunteers from Prince of Wales (POW) to install smoke alarms in homes across the island and conduct The Pillowcase Project presentations at three schools. This was the first time that the Red Cross of Alaska has held installation events for Sound the Alarm on POW. Volunteers traveled to homes in Craig, Klawock, Whale Pass, Coffman Cove, Naukati Bay, Thorne Bay, Kasaan, Hollis, and Hydaburg. Sound the Alarm also went to Ketchikan to install smoke alarms and participate in a volunteer meet-and-greet.
The Red Cross of Alaska shipped over 500 smoke alarms to POW with the modest goal of installing 300. Volunteer fire chiefs that participated with the installation events also received spare smoke alarms to install in the homes of people who were unavailable when volunteers came to their community.
It was a good thing that POW volunteers were on hand to help those from off island as they adjusted to daily POW realities: the lack of street addresses in some places, unreliable cell reception, and knowing which neighbors would be more likely to open their doors to outsiders. Having people on hand with local knowledge really made a big difference in how many homes had new smoke alarms installed.
Red Cross of Alaska volunteer Jeri Rosenthal put it this way, “POW is best thought of as a small community of a little over 5,000 people spread over the fourth largest island in the United States. Even with our newly paved roads, it takes time to get between villages. And even when you get to a town like Whale Pass, it can still take an extra step or two to get to your destination.”
Over the course of five days, Red Cross of Alaska and other POW volunteers made this year’s Sound the Alarm event extremely successful. Sound the Alarm events in POW and Ketchikan resulted in 102 homes visited, 19 volunteers engaged, 365 smoke alarms installed, and 152 smoke alarms given to volunteer fire chiefs for additional installs in the near future. Donations from across the country allowed the Red Cross of Alaska to do this all free of charge. That’s right, free.
Due to the success of this project, more smoke alarms will be shipped to Ketchikan and POW. These will be distributed to Red Cross of Alaska volunteers and volunteer fire chiefs to help protect more families.
A topic of conversation that came up more than once during this particular Sound the Alarm event was whether someone really needed a smoke alarm because of how much rain POW gets. Some people felt that lots of rain made their houses less vulnerable to fire. However, as Joshua Hills, volunteer fire chief for Naukati Bay pointed out, home fires still occur despite the amount of precipitation his community gets. Many home fires on POW are caused by problems with electrical wiring or creosote buildup in a chimney.
In POW communities where emergency services are limited or would have trouble reaching remote locations, a working smoke alarm could mean all the difference between a life lost or saved.
Some people that had new smoke alarms installed said they had taken their old ones down because they had become a nuisance. A running joke in kitchens across POW was that smoke alarms did their job exceptionally well in letting the cook know when something on the stove was smoking. Volunteers relocated smoke alarms to places where smoke from a burning hamburger would have trouble reaching it, like adjacent rooms or hallways. Although we know this intuitively, smoke alarms work best on the ceiling where smoke goes first, not on a shelf.
One thing every person learned during these Sound the Alarm events was that smoke alarms need to be replaced every ten years or so. This means that just because the alarm beeps when you press the button does not mean that it is actually capable of detecting smoke and sounding the alarm when you need it most. New smoke alarms were installed in situations where people could not remember the last time they had changed their smoke alarms. To help avoid this situation in the future, volunteers wrote the install and replace-by dates on the new alarms.
In addition to smoke alarm installations, Red Cross of Alaska volunteers Bridget Thomson and Stacy Mank conducted The Pillowcase Project presentations at schools in Naukati Bay and Whale Pass. The presenters talked to students about local hazards, disaster preparedness, and the importance of discussing emergency plans with their families. Each student received a pillowcase that they can use to fill with items they would need during an emergency.
When asked what they would keep in their pillowcase, students listed such things as flashlights, stuffed animals, water bottles, comic books, Twinkies, canned food (with opener), socks, shoes and emergency blankets—a good mix of practical and comforting things.
The Pillowcase Project presentations also allowed a chance for our POW students to reveal their awareness of local threats. One Naukati Bay fifth grader recalled the unnerving experience of having to evacuate her house in Port Alexander at 1 a.m. and take a boat across the bay to reach higher ground. Other students easily listed what they would do during an earthquake. It is a credit to the families and teachers across POW for helping the upcoming generation be disaster ready at such an early age.
The success of the POW Sound the Alarm events and The Pillowcase Project presentations were made possible by our generous and patient volunteers who either made time to help with logistics, lodging and communications or otherwise passed the word along via social media. Every bit of effort in support of this year’s Sound the Alarm events made our communities that much safer.
The people who came out to help the Red Cross of Alaska included some POW people you might know: Jan Stevens, Gary Lawton, Les Bovee, Brian Templin, Jeri Rosenthal, Karen Peterson, Stacey Mank, Dick Stubee and Colleen Watson. Ketchikan volunteers included Pam Roth, Paulette Laberge and Ken Kemmerer. Rick Janelle and Bridget Thomson came down from Juneau while Michael Wanzenried joined from Anchorage. The four volunteer fire chiefs who came out to help and will have some smoke alarms on hand for future community installs include Joshua Hills from Naukati Bay, Tom and Tamara Weaver from Whale Pass, Tom Harden from Hollis, and Ted Peele from Hydaburg. Next year, we hope to have even more POW community members join us!
Additional thanks to the Alaska Commercial Company and AK49 for their generous donations of lunch on several days and to BP Alaska for their sponsorship of all Southeast installs during Sound the Alarm.
Additional sponsors of Sound the Alarm events in Alaska include Alaska Airlines, Denali Brewing Company, Doyon Limited, Joanna L. Moss, Kinross Fort Knox Gold Mine, Matson, Midnight Sun Brewing Company and TOTE Maritime Alaska. Partnerships with these companies help keep the costs down, which makes more funds available for providing assistance to individuals and families after home fires or other large-scale disasters.
If you are interested in becoming a Red Cross of Alaska volunteer and making a difference in your community and/or developing new skills, you can check out opportunities online and find the Red Cross office nearest you at redcross.org/Alaska.