published Thursday, April 4th, 2013

Chattanooga firefighters offer smoke alarms in neighborhood of deadly fire

Fire Marshall James Whitmire, center, and other fire department officers bring smoke detectors to distribute in the East Chattanooga neighborhood where a fatal fire occurred earlier this week.
Fire Marshall James Whitmire, center, and other fire department officers bring smoke detectors to distribute in the East Chattanooga neighborhood where a fatal fire occurred earlier this week.
Photo by Dan Henry.

SAFETY TIPS

• The Chattanooga Fire Department recommends changing smoke alarm batteries at least twice a year.

• After changing the batteries, check to make sure the unit is working.

• Make sure there is at least one smoke alarm on every level of your home and inside all bedrooms.

• Clean dust and cobwebs from the alarm monthly.

• Keep a fire extinguisher on hand.

• Plan and practice an escape route.

Yellow tape still curls around the house, fluttering slightly in an early morning breeze. Stuffed animals and toys are clustered around a small tree in the front yard.

The windows and doors are boarded up -- powerful reminders of the tragic Monday morning fire on Rawlings Street that left one toddler dead and the mother and a second small boy badly burned.

Chattanooga firefighters gathered Wednesday morning to distribute free smoke alarms to neighbors, hoping to prepare as many as possible against a similar fate.

"We know the loss of a child has had a huge impact on this neighborhood, like it would anywhere," Fire Marshal James Whitmire said in a news release. "We're just trying to reach out to them now to make sure they have working smoke alarms."

But property owner Mildred Taylor said a lack of smoke alarms was not the problem.

She said the 2014 Rawlings St. home had five working alarms -- one in each of the three bedrooms, one in the kitchen and one in the living room.

"The house was up to code," she said.

City records show the house was renovated in 2012 to repair significant damage from a previous fire in 2010. Taylor applied for a building permit in late 2011, listing proposed repairs such as rewiring the house, patching the roof and installing new doors.

Chattanooga Times Free Press records state the 2010 fire was purposefully set by then-tenant Rodreka Gaines.

Taylor said Gaines used gasoline to spark the flames. Gaines was charged with arson and was sentenced in August 2011 to six years. She didn't serve any time in prison and is on probation, according to the Tennessee Department of Correction.

Poll
Do you have smoke detectors in your home?

Taylor said the house had security bars when she bought it but not on the windows and door at the back of the house, which met city fire code guidelines.

Whitmire said security bars pose a significant risk in fires.

"It's a Catch-22," said Whitmire. "They want to be safe, but they don't think about how they'll get out in a fire."

Whitmire recommends installing security bars that open from the inside to make escape easier, or using locks that emergency responders easily can find.

Neighbors welcomed the members of the Chattanooga Fire Department's Fire Prevention Bureau and firefighters from Station 4 into their homes.

Many still were visibly shaken by the fatal fire.

Dorothy Jones, who has lived across the street from the fire scene for more than 15 years, said she was grateful for what the fire department was doing.

"You never know what'll happen," she said.

The firefighters visited more than 40 homes and installed 27 smoke alarms. The new alarms run on a lithium ion battery that lasts 10 years and costs about $25 at hardware stores. Models that run on more traditional batteries can be as low as $10. But for lower-income families, even $10 can be a financial burden.

"It's a big deal for some people, you know? If it's between feeding your kid and one of these, it's a pretty clear choice," said Assistant Fire Marshal Pamela Williams.

For renters, cost shouldn't be an issue, however. According to Whitmire, making sure smoke alarms are installed and up to date is the landlord's responsibility.

And the benefit always outweighs the cost.

"Having at least one working smoke alarm more than doubles your chances of surviving a fire in your home," he said.

Bruce Garner, spokesman for the Chattanooga Fire Department, said the mother of the boys caught in the fire, Shondell Jackson, is with her son at the Joseph M. Stills burn Center in Augusta. The boy was still listed in critical condition Wednesday afternoon, Garner said.

No information has been released on the cause of the fire or where it started.

Contact staff writer Lindsay Burkholder at lburkholder@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

about Lindsay Burkholder...

Lindsay Burkholder is originally from Winston-Salem, N.C. She graduated from Covenant College in May 2012 with a bachelor's degree in English. While at Covenant she spent time writing for and editing the news section of the school newspaper, The Bagpipe. Burkholder also attended the World Journalism Institute in New York City in 2011.

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