New state fire marshal looks west to cut fire deaths


LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — A retired Grand Rapids Fire Department deputy chief is now the state’s top firefighter.

Kevin Sehlmeyer was named state fire marshal last month by Gov. Rick Snyder.

“It’s pretty humbling, actually,” Sehlmeyer told 24 Hour News 8. “But I’ll also say that the Grand Rapids Fire Department has definitely prepared me for this job. “

Michigan remains one of the most deadly states in the nation when it comes to fires. In 2016, there were 116 fatal fires, 99 of which were residential fires. Twenty-six fire deaths were reported between January and March of this year, putting the state on track to equal last year’s figures. Because of similar numbers, Michigan has consistently been one of the 10 states with highest rate of deadly fires.

Experts believe the lack of working smoke detectors is the largest contributing factor to those deaths.

“That’s one of the things I saw when I was in Grand Rapids is that we went in to a lot of homes and they didn’t have a working smoke detector,” Sehlmeyer said.

While statewide numbers are disturbing, West Michigan continues efforts to buck that trend.

Free smoke detectors provided by fire departments through WOTV’s Operation Save a Life and similar programs are part of that endeavor. Operation Save a Life has provided some 20,000 free detectors in Muskegon, Ottawa, Allegan and Calhoun counties since 2013.

Much of Sehlmeyer’s battle plan relies on replicating the successes seen in Grand Rapids, where there has been a dramatic drop in the number of fire deaths. Two people died in fires in 2016 in Grand Rapids. The number was five in 2011.

Grand Rapids introduced the Residential Fire Safety Program in 2013. Residents who need a smoke detector can simply pick up the phone and the neighborhood fire company shows up, installing detectors with a 10-year battery life on each floor and sleeping area of the home at no charge. The first three years of the program were funded by FEMA grants. Since the program started, 42,000 smoke detector have been installed.

Sehlmeyer said the Grand Rapids program goes beyond giving residents a smoke detector and hoping they put it up.

“We’re also educating them about things in the kitchen that they should watch, things in their utility room, having drills and doing things with their families,” he said.

It’s the kind of thinking he would like to see statewide.

Sehlymeyer wants to promote similar programs throughout Michigan as a way to get fire firefighters and residents thinking about fire safety beyond fire safety week in October

“That’s an important week. We won’t move away from our traditions,” Sehlmeyer said. “But one of the things, when you think of it, we can have an impact on the culture here in Michigan to fire safety.”

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