Vancouver Fire Department to focus on prevention

'Project Home Safe' will educate residents about top 3 causes of blazes

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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Much of what people learn about fire safety is reactionary, Vancouver Fire Marshal Heidi Scarpelli said recently.

Fire drills at work and school, a home escape route and "stop, drop and roll" all focus on what to do in the event of a fire, Scarpelli told the city council.

Now a new community outreach program, "Project Home Safe," will emphasize that a lot of residential fires are preventable.

"We don't even want that ignition to happen," Scarpelli said during a presentation with Vancouver Fire Chief Joe Molina.

Scarpelli said that 73 percent of the department's fire calls are for residential fires.

Four people have died so far this year in residential fires; the city averages 206 residential fires a year.

The top three causes are cooking, candles and cigarettes, and fires most often start in the kitchen, a bedroom or on a patio.

"We recognize there are other causes of fires," Molina said. He wants to focus limited departmental resources on preventing the top three causes, he explained.

A city map of residential fires per square mile, based on eight years of data, shows the highest rates centered in an area around Fourth Plain Boulevard, roughly east of Fort Vancouver Way and west of Andresen Road. That's where the prevention efforts will start.

Molina said the targeted area has approximately 12,000 residents, many of whom live in apartments. To illustrate the impacts a fire has in multifamily housing, Scarpelli included a chart showing that eight fires between 2006 and 2013 damaged a total of 82 apartment units.

Unfortunately, many tenants don't carry renter's insurance, and so they lose everything, Scarpelli said.

The outreach program will involve firefighters, deputy fire marshals and Fire Corps volunteers going door to door.

Scarpelli said Washington State University Vancouver has volunteered to study the outreach efforts over a five-year period to see if the goal — reducing the frequency and severity of residential fires and raising public awareness of fire prevention — can be achieved and measured by declining fire rates.

They hope to start the program by September, Scarpelli said.

Postcards will be sent in advance of the home visit, which read, "Open your door to fire safety. Vancouver Fire wants you to stop home fires before they start."

The postcards and fliers, which will be handed out, include information in English, Vietnamese, Russian and Spanish.

The fliers show fire dangers, such as unattended pans on a stove, extinguishing cigarettes in potted plants or having lit candles within 12 inches of flammable materials.

Additionally, the department has created a 45-second video about fire safety that people will be shown on an iPad.

City councilors were enthusiastic about the program, as was Mayor Tim Leavitt. He asked Molina how he planned to balance the outreach effort with maintaining service.

Molina said this will just be refocusing the department's outreach efforts. He didn't ask for additional money.