GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — After years of declining fire fatality rates, the city of Grand Rapids saw a large jump in the number of deadly fires in 2020, losing nine people in five incidents.
It’s the largest number of fatal fires in the city since the early 2000’s.
In one of those fires, a mother and her three sons died after their father set a burn pile on fire and left it unattended.
Robert Scales has been charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter in the case.
All the city’s fatal fires in 2020 had one thing in common: they lacked an early warning system.
“Working smoke alarms were absent. They were not in any structures. So, the benefit of early detection and notification for the occupants, that opportunity was gone,” said Grand Rapids Fire Department Inspector Lt. Bill Smith.
We often hear from those left behind after tragedy, like a fire, takes a life.
“But what people don’t see is our own firefighters. And when they have to contend with a fire fatality, they do often take that personally,” Smith said. “You won’t come out of this career not having something somewhere in your baggage that you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life. And so, when we lose somebody, it hurts.”
Adding to the frustration, the 2020 numbers come after years of a dropping fire fatality rates in Grand Rapids.
One reason for the drop has been the city’s residential safety program.
On request, residents could have a fire crews show up at their home to install free smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and inspect homes for basic safety hazards.
Tens of thousands of smoke detectors have been installed in Grand Rapids homes since 2013.
The pandemic effectively ended in-home visit in 2020. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency turned down the city’s request to renew the grant this year.
“We are reapplying for that to supplement our smoke alarm inventory,” Smith said.
These factors combined caused GRFD to pivot their safety program.
Now the emphasis will be on an expanded community education effort through the newly formed Community Engagement and Education Team.
GRFD officials recently outlined the plan for city commissioners.
Community organizations and business are on board to help get out the fire safety message.
Grand Rapids school will play a vital role, partnering with GRFD with an expanded school safety program.
In the old days, those efforts were concentrated at the elementary school level. The new program will involve K-12 students in both in-person and virtual classrooms.
“Deputizing and empowering our kids to be fire marshals within our own home really is one of our truest desires to keep kids safe,” Smith said.
You can still contact the fire department if you need a smoke detector installed at 311 or 616.456.3000. More information can be found online.