Hakim Benmoussa, fire inspector with the Cottonwood Fire Department, pulls his fire vehicle into a neighborhood in search of anyone he can talk to.
He spots a group of kids playing in a neighborhood and asks them, in English and in Spanish, if their parents need smoke detectors in their homes.
A couple of adults approach Benmoussa who speaks Spanish to them, hands them his card, and asks them if they are taking fire precautions.
“I’ve put a few smoke detectors into this neighborhood and they're thankful. Hopefully they tell their friends about this service,” he said. “Sometimes they want to check with their spouses before they say anything.”
Benmoussa, along with other area firefighters, have embarked on a preventative campaign to fight the disastrous consequences of structure fires in homes without smoke detectors by offering the devices free to residents. As a result, Benmoussa patrols neighborhoods looking for anyone who might need a smoke detector installed in their home.
“I do this at least once a day and it works, but it has come down to a witch-hunt,” he smiled. “We had a sign-up sheet at the Old Town Mission, but we didn't get enough people that way.”
The fire department received scores of smoke detectors, Benmoussa said, thanks to a grant.
Benmoussa said that during his career as a firefighter, he has seen both the life-saving potential of smoke detectors and the tragic consequences of homes without them.
“If someone wanted to buy one from the hardware store, they only cost about $5 and the batteries last a long time. Residents can get them from us and installed for free,” he said. “That’s low-cost insurance.”
During his routine, Benmoussa stops at a home on Mingus Avenue to check on smoke detectors he recently installed.
Dolores Arreguin of Cottonwood opens the door to let in her three small grandchildren who are excited about a visit from a firefighter.
The fire inspector hands them each a small teddy bear.
Arreguin said that her smoke detectors were installed a few weeks ago.
“It’s safer for my grandkids,” she said. “If a fire happens in my home, we could get out because of the smoke detectors. It’s much safer and I thank the fire department.”
Arreguin added that with so many children in the house, it sometimes gets difficult to watch them constantly, “and you don’t always know what they are up to.”
She said that this is a valuable service that the fire department is performing and it only entails a phone call or simply talking to a firefighter. Within a few minutes, the device is installed.
“I’ve lost a house to fire in Texas and I know how important prevention is,” Arreguin explained.
Verde Valley Fire District Chief Don Eberle said that his station has been doing this program for many years now.
The smoke detectors are provided from the district's fire prevention budget and a moderate number of the devices are kept on hand, he added.
"We have had great success with the program and it's one of the cheapest forms of insurance anyone can have in their home," he said. "We even carry replacement batteries on our trucks in case someone needs them."
Eberle said that the simple devices are vital for fire safety and every home should be equipped with them, "They are proven to save lives," he added.
According to the U.S. Fire Administration in Maryland, the United States has one of the highest death rates from fire in the industrialized world. Incidents of fire are reported to kill more Americans each year than all natural disasters combined with at least 80 percent of all fire deaths occurring in residences. Seniors age 65 and older and children under age 5 run the greatest risk of death by fire.
According to the USFA, residential fires represent 23 percent of all fires and 76 percent of structure fires. In 2001, direct property loss as a result of fire was an estimated $10.6 billion.
The USFA reports that in residential dwellings 25 percent of fires start in kitchens while 13 percent start in bedrooms. In apartments, 48 percent start in kitchens and 6 percent in bedrooms.
Careless smoking is the leading cause of fire deaths but cooking fire is the leading cause of home fires, often the result of unattended cooking and human error rather than mechanical failure of stoves or ovens. Arson is the second leading cause of residential fires and related deaths with heating running third.
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), a working smoke alarm dramatically increases a person's chance of surviving a fire. Reportedly over 90 percent of U.S. homes have at least one smoke alarm. However, the NFPA reports that smoke detectors are not always properly maintained and as a result might not work in an emergency.
Further, the association reported an increase in the last 10 years in the number of fires that occur in homes with non-functioning alarms. It is estimated that over 39 percent of residential fires and 52 percent of residential fatalities occur in homes with no smoke alarms.
Meanwhile, Benmoussa continues his patrols in the neighborhoods of Cottonwood.
"For now," he said, "this is the only way to get smoke detectors to families who don't have them."
For more information about no-cost fire safety inspections and free smoke detectors and installation, contact Cottonwood Fire Department at 634-2741 or Verde Valley Fire District at 634-2578.