The principal at Whittier Elementary in Northwest Washington was the first to contact the fire department. Students’ smoke detectors kept chirping in the background of virtual classes. The problem seemed widespread at the elementary school of more than 300 students, and the principal sought help from the fire department on how to address the low batteries in smoke detectors.

But soon after, other school leaders across the city starting calling, too, according to Tony Falwell, fire marshal and deputy chief at the D.C. fire department. Smoke detectors in homes were disrupting classes across the city, and to Falwell — an experienced firefighter in the department’s fire prevention division — that meant that homes were more susceptible to dangerous fires.

And while the teachers heard it, the parents and students at the homes seemed so accustomed to the incessant noise that they didn’t notice it.

“As soon as you hear it, you need to address it,” Falwell said in an interview. “Because if you continue to ignore it, it just becomes background noise.”

The reports from school staff members highlight the unique window that schools have into students’ homes during virtual learning — and the fire department views that vantage as an opportunity do some good.  

Falwell and the fire department are launching a campaign aimed at students and their families to remind them of the importance of having working smoke detectors in homes. They are showing up at PTA meetings on Zoom and are recording videos that students and parents will be able to view through their school learning platforms from home.

Shayne Wells, a spokesman for the school system, said D.C. Public Schools is working with the fire department to ensure that the public safety campaign reaches students.

“There were smoke detectors going off  and no one was paying attention to it, which meant that the kids weren’t safe,” John A. Donnelly Sr., acting fire chief, said during his appearance at the Whittier Education Campus PTA meeting Thursday. “We got that from a number of places.”

The fire department said that working smoke detectors significantly reduce the chances that a fire turns deadly. In 2007, the District started distributing free smoke detectors through the A’sia Sutton Smoke Alarm Giveaway and Installation Program. Five-year-old A’sia died in a 2007 fire at her D.C. home, which did not have a smoke detector. The D.C. fire department has since given away donated smoke detectors and installed them in thousands of homes.

The department has a limited number of free smoke detectors that it can provide and install for families who could not otherwise afford them on their own.

In 2019, a fire in Brightwood Park killed Yafet Solomon, 9, and Fitsum Kebede, 40. The brick rowhouse lacked working smoke detectors.

Falwell said cooking is the top cause for home fires in the city and that the department has responded to fires that spread in part because the resident removed a chirping smoke detector instead of replacing its batteries. He said two residents have died this year from cooking fires.

Falwell said families can contact the fire department if they have any questions or cannot afford replacement batteries.

As part of the campaign, Falwell developed what he hopes is a catchy slogan to remind families of the importance of smoke detectors. He even ran it by his 4-year-old granddaughter to ensure it will stick with children.

“When you hear the chirp,” it goes, “it’s time do the work.”