About once in every 11 days someone dies as the result of a fire in the District of Columbia. According to city fire department statics, 61 people have died in fires in the 22 months since July 1975.
More than half the deaths could have been avoided, Fire Marshall John P. Breen said, if all homes in the city were required to have smoke detectors, as is done in several other municipalities in the metropolitan area.
Mayor Walter E. Washington last week proposed legislation that would require every newly built home in the city to be equipped with at least one smoke detector and every dwelling unit to have one such advance warning device within three years of the bill's passage.
The legislation would require at least one smoke detector installed in each sleeping area. Breen acknowledged that as drafted, the legislation would provide only minimal protection when compared to more elaborate smoke detection systems.
"We're not looking at a 100-per-cent, fail-safe situation," Breen said. "But we figure the odds are much better in general with smoke detectors. Enough people will get the warning so there should be a change in the deaths."
Smoke detectors use special sensory devices for early detection of unusual levels of smoke in the air which triggers alarm.
Fire officials, who have generally supported use of the devices, especially in the past five years, point out that most fire deaths occur from smoke inhalation rather than burns.
"Generally speaking, the person (is victimized) upstairs when they're in bed," Breen said. "The fire may be in the basement and they're on the second floor. The fire may never even get up there, but the smoke does."
The mayor's proposed legislation would mandate that smoke detectors be wired into the regular power supply of new homes. In existing homes, the plug-in detectors could be used.
Consumer Reports recommends that a combination of electrical and battery-operated detectors be used to insure that the home not be without protection if the power supply is knocked out before the fire is detected.
"That's probably too expensive for the average homeowner," Breen said. "We certainly don't want to get across to people that they should confine themselves to one detector. But you have to tailor it to the needs of your home."
The legislation requires the owners of the homes to pay for installation of the detectors - which cost about $25 each - and to maintain them in working order.