Hundreds of Wisconsin residents safer after “Sound the Alarm” installation events 

Story & photos by Laura McGuire and Justin Kern, American Red Cross 

Spring once again meant community safety along with the flowers and showers in Wisconsin. 

The American Red Cross “Sound the Alarm. Save a Life” home fire safety campaign returned to various cities over the course of three weeks, including an emphasis in Wisconsin on residents in Milwaukee, Fond du Lac, Sun Prairie and La Crosse. In a matter of a few hours during select days in May, approximately 300 homes in our state received free smoke alarms, fire escape plans and peace of mind against home fires, the most common disaster people face.  

Wisconsin Region CEO Mark Thomas, at right with megaphone, rallies crowds before the Milwaukee day of home fire safety on May 21, 2022.

Red Cross responses to residential fires have increased over the past two years, with thousands of families in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan displaced or worse. Since 2014, the Red Cross Home Fire Campaign, which includes the spring “Sound the Alarm” events, has documented more than 1,270 lives saved, including families in Janesville and Oshkosh.  

After two years without the full force of the signature Red Cross home fire safety campaign in communities due to the COVID pandemic, there was a sense of gratitude – in being proactive, giving back and joining together.  

“This is a big deal to me,” said Cristina Castillo, who lives with her five family members in their home on Milwaukee’s South Side, where Red Cross volunteers installed multiple alarms and talked through a home fire escape plan. “Thank you for being here and thank you for coming into our home.”  

‘How could I say no to free smoke alarms?’ 

In Wisconsin, home fire safety days began with events in Sun Prairie and La Crosse in the same week.

Over the course of two days, Red Cross volunteers, partners and firefighters brought more than 118 alarms plus escape plans and resources to people at more than 50 homes.  

As the Red Cross volunteer and partner fire safety teams visited Dianne Ames’s home in Sun Prairie, one could not help but notice the Green Bay Packers signage on the walls. But the reason for the visit was not to cheer on the team, but to install smoke alarms, review fire safety tips, create a home escape plan and make her home safer, and of course, keep those Packers items safe as well.   

Crystal and Dianne Ames talk through their fire safety plan with Natalie Courtier, Sun Prairie F.D.

When visiting her local community center earlier this year, Ames was greeted by a Red Cross employee sharing the importance of working smoke alarms and the resources available from this program.  

“How could I say no to free smoke alarms?,” said Dianne Ames about why she decided to sign up for the fire safety visit. “Thank you, this is a great program, and I am happy to get new smoke alarms to keep my house safe.”  

Ames’s is grateful for the program and has taken advantage of free smoke alarms in the past. About eight years ago, the Sun Prairie Fire Department had a safety initiative and installed her previous smoke alarms, which were soon to expire. 

“Many people don’t know that smoke alarms need to be replaced every ten years,” said Natalie Courtier, Community Risk Reduction Officer, Sun Prairie Fire Department, who joined the installation team at Ames’s home. “The batteries in the new smoke alarms we are putting in today will not need to be replaced – they are guaranteed to last for 10 years, but we do encourage you to test them once a month to make sure they are working properly.”  

Within 30 minutes, two new smoke alarms were installed and tested in Ames’s home. Meanwhile, other members of the installation team sat with Ames in her kitchen to review safety tips and create a home fire escape plan for her family.   

“I am blessed with what I have been given and I like meeting new people and helping out where I can,” said Jean Aden, QBE employee and volunteer with this installation team alongside co-workers Greg Puloo.

The volunteer installation team walked out of Ames’s house with a sense of pride knowing they helped to make her home safer and that her beloved Green Bay Packer signage would be safe, too.    

‘A lot more secure’ 

The Cream City has the highest number of fire responses and need in the state, but COVID has kept Red Cross teams and partners from holding wide-scale preparedness events since spring 2019. After a rally for about 100 volunteers, staff and partners at Milwaukee Fire Department Station 12, fire safety teams fanned out predominately on Milwaukee’s South Side, an area of heightened responses. By around lunchtime, teams had visited 162 homes, installing 400 free smoke alarms.  

Cristina Castillo, standing, talks through a plan for her family to safely escape a home fire with Red Cross volunteer Melissa Centgraf during a visit in Milwaukee.

Red Cross volunteers Scott Laurent, Melissa Centgraf and Jeffrey Schouten made about 10 stops on their fire safety appointments in the Lincoln Village neighborhood.  

Cristina and Jesus Castillo lost loved ones in Michigan after a home fire. As teams were installing alarms two doors down at their sister’s home, they realized these same resources could be vital for their home, which includes their mother, their two children and a grandchild. The Castillos invited Laurent, Centgraf and Schouten in, where they installed a handful of alarms and drew out a fire escape plan for the three-story home.  

“Now we have … a plan, like if you hear an alarm going off and how to get out of rooms on this side of the house or that side of the house,” said Cristina Castillo, later adding, “I feel a lot more secure. It’s been in the back of my mind but sometimes you just get so busy … I’m extremely happy you all are here.” 

‘Good and helpful reminders’ 

John Wright said he really didn’t know where all of the smoke alarms were located throughout his two-story, finished-basement home in Fond du Lac.  

“Have at it,” Wright said while inviting a three-person installation team to check out alarm needs in the home, one of nearly 100 scheduled over two days in the city. 

Calie Tasch, Community Risk Reduction Specialist, Fond du Lac Fire/Rescue, was the self-described “drill-master” and talked through existing alarms and possible replacements with Red Cross disaster volunteer and intern Laura Knops. Ultimately, two, new alarms were installed near a furnace and a wood-working area.  

Calie Tasch, Fond du Lac Fire/Rescue, and Laura Knops install alarms during a stop amid two days of fire safety in Fond du Lac.

At the same time, Sara Dorow, Red Cross Disaster Program Recovery Manager, joined Wright on a kitchen island to talk over cooking tips, an escape map of the home and additional awareness around the common local threat of tornadoes. Wright signed up for the alarms through the local Aging and Disability Resource Center, a partner in outreach for many of the appointments on this day  in Fond du Lac.  

“All of these are good and helpful reminders,” Wright said.  

This home fire safety push is possible because of numerous supporters and partners in our communities. Our spring 2022 partners include: Milwaukee Fire Department, La Crosse Fire Department, Fond du Lac Fire/Rescue, Sun Prairie Fire Department, United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County, Forest County Potawatomi Foundation, Generac, Nicholas Family Foundation, Great Rivers United Way, Brewers Community Foundation, Festival Foods, Mercury Marine, QBE, Aurora Advocate Health, Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, Aging and Disability Resource Center of Fond du Lac County, City of Fond du Lac Senior Center, Sunshine Place, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of Milwaukee, Colonial Club, Alderwoman JoCasta Zamarripa, Milwaukee Tool, El Rey and Pete’s Fruit Market.  

You can still bring these free fire safety resources from the Red Cross and our partners to your home and family. Sign up at redcross.org/WIsmokealarms or (888) 376-4056.  

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