With legislation to require smoke detectors in all homes pending in the City Council, the District is embarking on a drive to convince residents to buy and install them voluntarily.
A campaign including television spots and a special telephone number - call "FD-SMOKE" - is promoting the devices which some experts say could save 40 per cent of the lives now lost in fires.
Already, all of the city's 1,200 fire-fighters have been taught about smoke detectors so they can advise residents. An advanced training program scheduled to begin soon will prepare 125 firefighters to deliver the message to school and civic groups.
Fire Chief Burton Johnson, in a recent presentation to the Mayor's Task Force on Fire Protection Services, emphasized smoke detectors as one of the major ways he hopes to cut fire deaths in the city.
Two bills are pending in the city council to require smoke detectors in homes. Mayor Walter Washington's proposal would apply immediately to all new or substantially rehabilitated housing for which building permits are issued after Jan. 1, 1978. It would apply to all housing after three years. Councilwoman Willie Hardy's bill has the same provisions but would require smoke detectors in all district-owned housing within one year.
Smoke detectors are electronic devices that sound an alarm when they sense smoke to wake up residents before they are trapped in a burning building or are overcome by smoke. The devices cost $20 to $70, and are credited with preventing the kinds of injuries which occur most often in residential fires.
District residents should be hearing plenty about them in a coming months.
The special phone line, FD-SMOKE, which began operation last week, will be devoted to two-minute messages on smoke detection.
Thirty-second TV spots filmed last week featuring Chief Johnson will soon run on local stations. The stations: are offering the time and filming as a public service.
The department also plans to have displays on smoke detectors in each of the 32 fire stations, using models donated by manufacturers.
Finally, fire officials plan to continue a recent program of following up on fatal fires by going back to the scene the day after the blaze. Then, while motivation to learn how to prevent anothe rcausalty is high, residents hear suggestions on fire safety. At each of the three apartment buildings where the program has been conducted so far, smoke detectors were emphasized as a means for preventing future casualties.
Johnson's plans for promoting smoke detectors were presented last week to nine members of the mayor's task force, a loosely organized group of citizens concerned with fire prevention.
The task force members seemed most concerned, however, about the fire department's problems with false alarms. Of 37,000 calls for fire service last year, more than 15,000 were false alarms, compared to fewer than 10,000 reports of fires and fewer than 12,000 calls for other department services.
Task force member Ed Sonneborn compiled a list of the fire boxes from which the most false alarms were turned in. The list shows that 60 per cent of the of false alarms come from Wards 6, 7, and 8 - basically Southeast plus the areas in Northeast south of Benning Road, and east of the Anacostia River. By contrast, no false alarms were reported in the far Northwest Ward 3, between Rock Creek Road and the Potomac.
One task force member suggested that churches and community groups be told about fire alarm boxes from which most false alarms are made, so that members could watch the boxes. A list of the most troublesome boxes shows that the one that reports the most false alarms is located at Barnes and Hayes Streets SE. In one two-month period, 77 false alarms were reported from that box.
Johnson, while calling the problem one that "seems destined to go on and on," said the installation late this year or early next year of telephone alarm boxes might discourage false alarms.