Home Fires Displace High Numbers of Wisconsinites in April

MILWAUKEE, Wisc. (May 1, 2020) – Home fire numbers remain high for this time of year, with 284 people displaced from 56 home fires in Wisconsin during the month of April, according to response statistics from the American Red Cross.

As the number of people displaced by fires remains high, Red Cross leaders are urging families to use extra time at home to practice preparedness and to be diligent with frequent sources of home fires such as cooking.

Greenfield Loomis apt fire April 2020 boards trash

A fire in Greenfield displaced nearly 20 residents, part of the ongoing rash of home fires in April 2020.

“Our dedication to helping people during times of disaster has not relented during this pandemic. In fact, we are seeing home fire numbers at an unusually high rate for this time of year,” said Mark Thomas, Region CEO and Southeast Wisconsin Chapter Executive, American Red Cross. “We’re strongly encouraging families to talk about their home fire escape plan, to check their smoke alarms and to keep an eye on cooking while in the kitchen. These are critical steps to make sure we’re safer at home in every way possible.”

April fire figures included two large-scale apartment building fires, in Madison (65 people) and Greenfield (19 people). That’s on top of March Red Cross response numbers – when “safer at home” orders went into place across Wisconsin – which saw more than 250 people displaced from 79 home fires. For certain, firefighters and first responders around the state have dealt with even more fire calls in their heroic daily course of work.

The rate of home fires is higher than normal for this time of year, and more typical with what Red Cross teams respond to during the busy start to winter. Along with home fires over the past nine weeks, our disaster teams also responded to assist with evacuations from flooding in Brown County, to feed first responders at a grain mill explosion in Chippewa County, and to people displaced by a building collapse in Racine and a transportation incident in Milwaukee.


For additional info on the Red Cross response amid the COVID-19 pandemic, including ways you can get involved, click here.


Our top priority is protecting the people we serve and our volunteers, so we have adopted new guidelines and tactics as we continue to support our communities. All volunteer responders and clients are asked health screening questions prior to meeting at a disaster scene. We also have the technology in place to issue immediate disaster assistance on a virtual basis. We have implemented steps to keep clients and volunteers safe from close contact, while at the same time providing financial assistance for items such as food, clothing, shelter and medications. The Red Cross also offers mental health support in beginning the long-term recovery process.

We continue to work closely with public health officials to deliver our mission where and when it’s safe to do so. This work includes additional support and partnerships through the state Emergency Operations Center to address the needs of people during this evolving emergency.

Superior Nock MKE fire April 2020

Residential fires like this one in Milwaukee displaced more than 275 residents from their homes in April, an unusually high number during spring.

Stay Safe and Help #EndHomeFires

The Red Cross is asking everyone to take simple steps to reduce the risk of a fire in your home and to help save lives. While many are home from work and school with their families, now is the perfect time to talk about home fire safety and practice your home fire escape plan.

  • Make sure everyone in the family knows how to get out of every room and how to get out of the home in two minutes or less.
  • Teach children the sound of a smoke alarm when you practice your home fire escape plan.
  • Select a meeting spot at a safe distance away from your home, such as a neighbor’s home or a tree in the front yard, so everyone knows where to meet.
  • Cooking fires are the top cause of home fires. Here is a list of cooking safety tips.
  • For resources and safety tips, download the free American Red Cross Emergency App from your app store.

You can support this ongoing mission for our neighbors in need by joining as a volunteer or by making a donation at redcross.org.

“You can tell that they care”: Greenfield man finds hope in people helping each other under the weight of COVID-19 and an apartment fire

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

Jessie Austin saw the smoke pumping out of his Greenfield apartment building, could see the flashing fire truck lights. But his mind was elsewhere.

Austin said he had “déjà vu” to other traumatic events in his life, like a fire during his youth that took a friend’s mother, and his experiences in the Army during the evacuation of Vietnam in the 1970s.

GF fire Jessie Austin chair ONE

Jessie Austin shares from a hotel in Milwaukee, a temporary home as he works on next steps in his recovery with the American Red Cross and others.

With his own apartment and belongings uncertain, under the shared stress of a global pandemic, Austin said he knew the “best way to deal with things was to get them out.” He started talking – with his neighbors on scene, on the phone with his counselor from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and multiple times each day with volunteers from the American Red Cross.

“[T]he volunteers from the Red Cross … they are very committed, compassionate people,” Austin said Thursday from a hotel sheltering operation where he and 10 other residents were staying.

“They don’t do a whole lot of talking; they’re there for support, like a sounding board. It’s … easy conversation because you can tell that they care. That’s the main thing. I’m very appreciative of them.”

In all, 19 people were displaced by the apartment building fire on April 20 and the Red Cross has worked with the residents on resources and recovery plans. In the time of COVID-19, crucial disaster response and recovery work persists – including a higher-than-normal rate of home fires for this time of year – with disaster teams adding extra safety steps along the way like daily health checks, an emphasis on virtual interactions, and masks and gloves whenever out in the field.

GF fire Jessie food Jim Robin Berzowski

American Red Cross volunteers Robin Berzowski, right, and Jim Berzowski, bring ‘room service’ meals to Jessie Austin, who was one of nearly 20 people displaced by a recent fire in Greenfield. The food drop offs are part of additional health and safety steps by disaster workers amid COVID-19.

It was the weight of the pandemic that turned Austin downright philosophical as he shared his story, his soft voice underscoring the importance he finds in keeping up hope and finding a way to help others. In a hat that read “United States of America” and prepping his hot lunch brought by Red Cross volunteers from a local diner, Austin expressed the deeper values he sees amid this unsettled moment.

“This Coronavirus thing, I’m telling people, look at what’s really going on. This thing is causing us to lean on each other and to continue to understand what life is all about. It’s about people helping each other. That’s what counts, that’s what’s important,” he said. “It’s the respect, knowing that you’ve been cared about, knowing that you count, knowing that in the long run, it’s time that is the most precious thing that we have.”

The spirit of people like Austin looking out for each other and sharing what help is available has been evident to Red Cross Disaster Action Team (or DAT) volunteers Jim and Robin Berzowski.

The couple has led food deliveries from generous Milwaukee restaurants like Don’s Diner and Landmark Family Restaurant, to the hotel sheltering the apartment complex residents. The dynamic duo of Jim and Robin – jokingly known as “DATman and Robin” among the Southeast Wisconsin disaster team – said they’ve felt grateful to be able to bring tasty meals to the residents, though the social distancing and other health steps have taken some getting used to.

GF fire COVID April 2020 Jim Robin Berzowski Landmark food pickup

Food pick up on April 23 from a Milwaukee restaurant, with meals destined for residents of a recent apartment building fire, one of many fires during an unusually busy spring.

As they delivered spaghetti dinners to each room at the hotel shelter Thursday, residents like Jessie gave quick updates on talks with their Red Cross caseworkers, and others let Jim and Robin know what they had heard from their neighbors earlier that day.

“We’re helping but they’re helping each other out, too,” Jim Berzowski said.

For more information on the response to COVID-19 in Wisconsin and the U.P. of Michigan – including ways you can get involved – visit this site.

260 People Received Red Cross Assistance After Home Fires, Other Disasters in March

MILWAUKEE, Wisc. (April 2, 2020) — Even during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, emergencies don’t stop and neither does the work of the American Red Cross. Every day, local volunteers are still providing care and comfort after disasters, such as home fires.

In the month of March, Red Cross disaster workers in Wisconsin responded to 81 incidents, providing assistance to 260 people all across Wisconsin (see map). Volunteers primarily helped families after home fires (79 incidents), with the addition of health measures and virtual work to keep this important support moving ahead for people in crisis.March 2020 fires WI ARC

“Our responses remained higher than average in March. As the realities of COVID-19 hit our state and nation, our disaster teams worked with public health officials, took on new training and added health and distancing measures to keep this work moving ahead, safely,” said Justin Kern, Communications Officer for the Wisconsin Region of the Red Cross. “We’re urging everyone to take steps while you’re observing stay-at-home measures to minimize the risk of fires in your own home.”

Along with the 79 fires in March – more than two per day, which is above our typical state average – Red Cross disaster teams also responded to help people at a building collapse in Racine and a transportation incident in Milwaukee.


You can support this ongoing mission for our neighbors in need by joining as a volunteer or by making a donation at redcross.org.


Our top priority is protecting the people we serve and our volunteers, so we have adopted new guidelines and tactics as we continue to support our communities. All volunteer responders and clients are asked health screening questions prior to meeting at a disaster scene. We also have the technology in place to issue immediate disaster assistance on a virtual basis. We have implemented steps to keep clients and volunteers safe from close contact, while at the same time providing financial assistance for items such as food, clothing, shelter and medications. The Red Cross also offers mental health support in beginning the long-term recovery process.

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American Red Cross disaster volunteers Dave Flowers, left, and Kevin Connell don protective face shields and gloves as they deliver hygiene supplies to a shelter run by the National Guard in Milwaukee. (Photo by Justin Kern / American Red Cross)

We continue to work closely with public health officials to deliver our mission where and when it’s safe to do so. This work includes additional support and partnerships through the state Emergency Operations Center to address the needs of people during this evolving emergency.

Stay Safe and Help #EndHomeFires

The Red Cross is asking everyone to take simple steps to reduce the risk of a fire in your home and to help save lives. While many are home from work and school with their families, now is the perfect time to talk about home fire safety and practice your home fire escape plan.

  • Make sure everyone in the family knows how to get out of every room and how to get out of the home in two minutes or less.
  • Teach children the sound of a smoke alarm when you practice your home fire escape plan.
  • Select a meeting spot at a safe distance away from your home, such as a neighbor’s home or a tree in the front yard, so everyone knows where to meet.
  • Visit org/homefires for additional free resources and safety tips.

For additional COVID-19 (a.k.a. Coronavirus) safety tips and resources, click here.

Hours After Smoke Alarm Installation, Oshkosh Couple Avoids the Worst

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

Ross Golly’s hands spelled out words like “smoke,” “scared” and “alarm” in retelling the story of a recent cooking fire at his home. Golly and his wife, Betty, who are both deaf, escaped danger from that grease fire quickly thanks in part to alarms installed that very afternoon by the American Red Cross.

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Betty and Ross Golly, with their dogs Brownie and Peanut, at their Oshkosh home in December 2019. Smoke alarms from the Red Cross helped them avoid harm and destruction the same day they were installed.

As Ross signed the word “comfort” to share his feeling on the ultimate impact of these alarms, his fingers displayed faint, white scars from another fire six years ago that revealed how bad it could have been.

Gratitude and collaboration
The Sunday after Thanksgiving, a volunteer duo from the Red Cross were out in northeastern Wisconsin following up on appointments to install smoke alarms and work with families on home fire escape plans. The appointments are part of the Red Cross Home Fire Campaign, which has brought more than 2 million smoke alarms into homes across the U.S. since 2014. Closer to home, from July 2018 to June 2019, for all of Wisconsin, Red Cross volunteers and partners installed 5,709 alarms at nearly 2,500 homes.

More than alarms, the program has directly led to nearly 700 lives saved nationwide, including a family in Janesville. It’s that chance to help keep families prepared and safe from that most-common disaster of home fires that engaged Red Cross volunteers like Toby Vanden Heuvel and Kurt Hein.

Vanden Heuvel has been a volunteer with the disaster action team since 2007. In that role, he both responds to help families who have suffered a home fire and installs alarms to prevent major fires. Soon after the Green Bay Packers game on Sunday, Dec. 1, Vanden Heuvel and Hein visited the Gollys for their installation appointment, which Ross had made online. The four worked collaboratively to overcome initial communications challenges, and Vanden Heuvel said the installation stood out because of the positivity and gratitude.

Toby Vanden Heuvel in FDL floods winter 2019

Toby Vanden Heuvel volunteers with the disaster team, which includes smoke alarm installations and, as seen here, distribution of flood clean up supplies in Fond du Lac in 2019.

“They were super gracious. And interested, reading through all of the instructions” for the alarms and home fire escape plans, Vanden Heuvel said. “Everyone was helping everyone, in some form or fashion.”

Later that night, Hein received a TTY call from the Gollys. The alarms Hein and Vanden Heuvel installed that day went off just hours later, alerting the Gollys to a kitchen fire and preventing a bigger disaster.

Alarms in use, just hours later
In mid-December, the Gollys shared their story on the fire from their home to the Red Cross, including disaster volunteer Sue Bardonner, fluent in American Sign Language that she learned when her son became deaf due to illness more than 20 years ago.

Hours after the installation of two bed-shakers and other, connected 10-year lithium battery alarms in the Golly home, they all went off. Betty had started to fry chicken in their kitchen. She said she misjudged the heat level and the grease burned up quickly, sparking smoke and small flames. That smoke triggered the shaker alarm under the bedroom bed where Ross was resting, as well as the connected alert lights the couple has rigged throughout the home.

Golly house burned pan

The charred pan that set off the smoke alarms at the Golly home.

While Betty dashed out the front door to escape the smoke, Ross took a quick check of the fire, then grabbed a fire extinguisher from their garage. He put out the fire without greater incident. But not without a rollercoaster of emotions.

“I felt scared” to have the alarms go off, Ross Golly signed. Still, he said the Red Cross bed-shakers and other alarms make him feel “more comfortable. It helps a lot.”

Ross and Betty Golly are now counted among those who prevented greater catastrophe from a home fire because of the Red Cross Home Fire Campaign. It’s a catastrophe they know well.

‘Something is wrong, I have to go’
For 23 years, the Gollys have lived in a ranch-style home in Oshkosh. The last few years, they’ve shared the home with their two loving dogs, Brownie and Peanut, who respond to sign language commands – especially when it involves treats. Like any homeowners, Ross and Betty have dealt with risks from accidents or weather. (An emergency broadcast weather radio is always on in the home and is connected to a series of alert lights, just like the smoke alarms, doorbell and telephone. Red Cross volunteers also shared information on common regional extreme weather disasters like flooding during their December visit.)

Ross Golly with burned hands submitted

Ross with his bandaged hands from a previous home fire.

An emergency incident six years ago at the home still puts the couple in a panic. Ross said he was working in the garage when a small fire broke out and melted a coffee pot. In putting that fire out, Ross hurt his hands, though he was able to get off an emergency text to Betty. She rushed home and said she immediately feared bigger problems for Ross with injuries to his hands, his primary method of communication.

“I got a text and I told my boss something is wrong, I have to go,” she remembered. “I came home and saw him and said, ‘Oh my gosh, go to the E.R.’”

Back to the hospital together, Betty helped Ross to communicate at the E.R. In time, his hands healed, though the scars remain. And they were a reminder when he heard about free smoke alarms and fire escape plans on offer from the Red Cross. As he thought back about the fire that scalded his hands and the more recent one where they avoided big damage, Ross reiterated his appreciation to Red Cross volunteers and for the alarms: “Thank you, we’re happy to have this.”

Do you know someone who could use free smoke alarms installed in their home? Sign up today at GetASmokeAlarm.org. Interested in joining our home fire safety volunteer teams? Take the first step at redcross.org/volunteer.

 

Readiness, Service and a Fire Close to Home: Our First Year Together

By Mark Thomas, Wisconsin Region CEO & Southeast Wisconsin Chapter Executive, American Red Cross

It was December 2018 and, as always with the holidays, it was time for family updates. Checking in with siblings, relatives, loved ones, a roundup on new jobs, relationships, babies and other benchmarks.

From my sister, the update was initially grim: my nephew in Racine had suffered a home fire.

Mark Thomas headshot proThat’s the kind of news that puts so much into perspective. She said he and his girlfriend had gotten out safely. They lost many possessions, including gifts from the holidays. But, as my sister said, they had hope right after the fire, because that’s when they received comfort and help from volunteers at the American Red Cross.

My sister and nephew didn’t even know I had started a new career at the Red Cross. This was just weeks after I had joined. The story from my sister was an unfiltered acknowledgement that fires didn’t just happen to other people. And that hope and help came from the Red Cross for everyone in need, my family included.

Once I had the chance to share about my new role at the Red Cross, I knew from my family’s story that I had come to the right place.

I’m happy to report that my family is back in their place and on solid footing. As for me, I’m now at one year as Regional CEO and Southeast Wisconsin Chapter Executive with the Red Cross. On this anniversary and during a time of year when people are extra reflective, I wanted to revisit a few of the milestone moments from another outstanding year of service by your Red Cross in Wisconsin. I also wanted to share a big lesson I’ve learned and the vision I have for the time ahead.

But back to 2019. As the anecdote I shared at the start shows, our programs and mission became very real in my life right away. Here are a few, high-level bullets of the stand-out moments our Region has been involved with over the past 12 months:

January

  • Received the “Region of the Year” recognition for the fundraising success of my predecessors and present leaders on our fund development team
  • Brought together our Southeast Chapter Board for my first full meeting (special shout-out to board chair Becky Fitzgerald for your leadership and guidance)

February

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With our team at the Milwaukee Stand Down, held at the Armory. 

March

  • Met people displaced by a large-scale apartment fire in Bayside, including a dear friend and a local reporter brave enough to share her story
  • At a shelter from ice jam flooding in Fond du Lac, watched as strangers brought a turkey on their Harley for people who were displaced, and was impressed by all the volunteers who kept spirits high (my teenage daughter was wowed, too, and impressed me by putting on a Red Cross vest and pitching in)

April

  • Welcomed and enthused by our staff at our first, in-person meeting in Madison
  • Those feelings multiplied this same month on an introductory meeting with my national colleagues at the historic Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C.

May

June

July

  • Able to notch success in nearly every way for our fiscal year, which ended in June
  • Completed my first CPR training
  • Worked alongside local and national Red Cross teams at the LULAC Convention in downtown Milwaukee
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Meeting disaster volunteer Ryan Clancy before he headed to help during Hurricane Dorian. Also met a few members of the Milwaukee media, who helped share Ryan’s journey.

August

  • Talked with volunteers as they flew off to the large-scale response to Hurricane Dorian and other flooding and fires – what an impressive machine to help people in desperate need

September

October

  • Grateful to have Greg Novinska take a new role with our biomedical services team, my colleague in everything happening behind the scenes to merge the full power of the Red Cross for people in our state

November

  • Cold weather came early, and with it, the typical spike in home fires … thankfully, our volunteers around the state have once again answered the call for families displaced by this every-day disaster
  • Had important discussions around inclusion and diversity with our talented Wisconsin leadership team, such a vital part of plans to make our organization the best place it can be for everyone

December

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Kids in Milwaukee enjoying swim lessons, with the promise of many more to come thanks to the Centennial Campaign and Milwaukee Rec.

There has been so much from those events and more that have impressed, humbled and energized me about the work we do. From it all, two ideas stand out.

The first is readiness. That word – readiness – means so much more to me, now that I’ve seen us in action. Home fires, floods, staff meetings, volunteer recruitment, fundraising, blood collection, outreach to military families … even as these words are coming together, our teams in Osseo are wrapping up a reception center for people affected by a massive car pile-up. Just before I pulled together these thoughts, one of our long-time and wonderful volunteers, Marge, stopped in and reminded me of the value of openness and being ready to share her passion and ideas for our mission. The countless ways readiness is part of our service at the Red Cross keeps what we do exciting and important.

From that important lesson on readiness, I have a solid foundation on how we build for the days ahead. We have a very strong network across Wisconsin. I am committed to making sure our core service is focused on our customers – including people in need, our volunteers and our supporters – and that it remains inclusive to all. There have been incredible people who have sustained and led this organization for more than 100 years in our state. I will carry that legacy of service. And I aim to make sure every community we serve knows the Red Cross is here to help, the right way. With you, I know we can help our friends, family and neighbors in need for the next 100 years – and beyond.

‘Diminished’ after a home fire, a Kenosha County nurse helps others as she rebuilds

Story by Cooper Adams, American Red Cross

Stephanie Mortenson laid down on her hotel bed, sobbing after finally having the chance to process the previous stressful hours. Losing her house, her car and most of her belongings in a devastating home fire, Mortenson now had to figure out how to start over.

“My life was diminished to a razor and a toothbrush,” Mortenson said.

Mortenson had been having a pretty normal night with her husband, watching their two grandchildren, both toddlers. Around 9 p.m., an explosion came from the garage. Their pickup truck caught on fire. Because there were no smoke alarms in the garage, the fire built before the alarms in the rest of the house detected anything. Fortunately, Mortenson heard the explosion, promptly called 9-1-1 and the family escaped the house.

Mortenson admitted that her family should have had a better escape plan in case of a home fire: “We should have discussed it earlier. We didn’t know where we were going to go, just that we had to get outside.”

Everyone made it out of the house unharmed. Mortenson had brought her grandchildren to her neighbor’s house to keep them safe. Shortly after, the fire department and American Red Cross arrived to check on everyone.

Chin Ng Kenosha installs fall 2019

Chin Ng, volunteer with the American Red Cross, installs a smoke alarm during a home fire safety event in Kenosha. Photo by Cooper Adams.

As someone who describes herself as stubborn, Mortenson was initially hesitant having the Red Cross help her that night. “I thought we didn’t need help,” Mortenson explained. “We’re givers, not takers”. After some friendly persuading, Red Cross Disaster Action Team (DAT) volunteer Ben Neal convinced Mortenson to take the first step of accepting a hug.

With Red Cross assistance, Mortenson and her husband are now living in an apartment, with plans to rebuild a new home in the same location as their previous one.

Mortenson’s journey with the Red Cross actually didn’t start with the home fire. Since she was 18, she’s been an advocate for donating blood. She’s donated every chance she’s had since.

Then, about a year and a half ago, she witnessed a horrible car accident involving a truck, leading to severe injuries and even deaths. As a nurse, she sprang into action and helped the passenger struggling for air in the wrecked car, saving her life. For her heroic actions, the Red Cross awarded her with the Brave Hearts award.


Do you know a community hero in southeastern Wisconsin? Click here to nominate them as a Brave Hearts hero.


After her own home fire, Mortenson found a way to be active with the Red Cross that would help others struck by home fires. For National Fire Prevention Week, the Red Cross teamed up with Journey Church and the Kenosha Fire Department to install free smoke alarms throughout Kenosha. Since Mortenson regularly attends Journey Church and remains involved with the Red Cross, she signed up to volunteer.

Mortenson felt moved to help make people safer by recalling the tragic night she had just months before. Mortenson arrived at Journey Church, prepared to go out and make a difference. She stopped when she recognized a familiar face: it was Ben Neal, one of the Red Cross volunteers who helped her the night of her own home fire.

She came up to him and they were able to catch up. Neal asked Mortenson about her grandkids and she replied that they were doing well. She also apologized for being stubborn about receiving help. When asked how she was, Mortenson grew contemplative.

Stephanie

Stephanie Mortenson, left, receives a Brave Hearts community hero award in May from presenter Beth Straka, We Energies. Photo by Front Room Studios.

“We live in a proud fashion,” Mortenson reflected. “People are just going through life, and we need to stop.”

The two continued their conversation until the time came to begin the installations. Mortenson reiterated how grateful she was for Neal and the Red Cross’ assistance that night and the following weeks.

When asked about his experience working with Mortenson, Neal responded that “It was great! I could tell she had a desire to give back and share her story. I began to volunteer so I could give back and help others who are at their lowest.”

After this experience, Mortenson feels as if she’s become a better person. She learned that admitting you need help is not a sign of weakness. She learned how to remove a mask she felt that she was wearing. She learned to be okay with three pairs of jeans instead of a whole closet. Grateful for the help she received, she thanked the Red Cross for providing her with the resources she needed to recover and give again.

You can help families during their moments of need. Join our Disaster Action Team volunteers. Take that first step by clicking here.

‘Inspired’ days of home fire safety in Racine and Langlade County

By Kelsey ShaSha McCarthy & Justin Kern, American Red Cross

In a seven-day stretch, nearly 100 families in totally different parts of the state were made safer when it comes to a shared threat – home fires.

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Jill Neider, top right, of Racine, talks through a home fire escape plan with her mother, Gloria Tischer, and Red Cross volunteer Hillary Wanecke.

American Red Cross volunteers and staff teamed up with fire department and community leaders in Racine and Langlade County to install dozens of free smoke alarms and work with families on their home fire escape plans. Just recently, this same program eclipsed 620 lives saved nationwide since 2014.

Here are two stories of the families and volunteers involved in those recent, important home fire safety and preparedness events in Wisconsin.

‘Whatever she needs for emergencies’
Becky Murphy saw a blurb in the Antigo newspaper about free smoke alarms being installed in Langlade County when she realized there weren’t any working alarms in the home she shares with her grandmother, Goldie Muelver, in Deerbrook. Becky signed up online and their home became part of a day of installations in Antigo and Langlade County on Aug. 23 run by the Red Cross and the Antigo Fire Department.

“I want to have whatever she needs for emergencies,” Becky said of her grandmother.

First-time volunteer Emily Koszarek and disaster staff member Dan Dozer scouted the interior of the Deerbrook home for the best spots for a handful of alarms. Once alarms were in place and tested, they talked through escape plans with Becky and Goldie. They also shared info on other types of disasters, like tornados, which had just dropped down in nearby areas during a summer storm.

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Deerbrook homeowner Goldie Muelver thanks and flatters new Red Cross volunteer Emily Koszarek.

Goldie, for what it’s worth, had some fun with the conversation, flattering Emily and adding that she’d “scream bloody murder” as part of her alert system should the smoke alarms go off.

Langlade County has been particularly hard hit by tragic home fires and seasonal storms this year. Emily said it was important for her to be able to do something for people who live in the same county as her, adding that it was a bonus to share information on a range of local and relevant disasters.

“I’m inspired by what we were able to do,” she said. “You never assume what someone knows or doesn’t know.”

Special layer of safety in Racine
The morning of Aug. 17 started out with boxes upon boxes of new battery powered smoke alarms arriving at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Racine. When all the supplies and materials were collected, groups of Red Cross volunteers and Racine Fire Department firefighters took their list of appointments and drove off to make the first of many house calls.

In the neighborhoods, volunteers left information with residents interested in learning more about home fire safety. At their appointments or when welcomed in by residents in need, volunteers helped residents start the dialogue on preventative measures with home fire emergencies. They also offered support by helping families create fire safety escape plans and installing smoke alarms in key, accessible areas of residents’ homes.

A three-member team comprised of Tommy Poe, Hillary Wanecke and Skip Gaffney headed to appointments along Deane Boulevard. One of those important house calls belonged to Jill Neider, a former 9-1-1 dispatcher, who lives with her mother, Gloria Tischer, and their seven-year old toy rat terrier, Dr. Sheldon Cooper.

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Volunteers and firefighters made dozens of families in Racine better prepared from home fires during a single-day safety event.

In a conversation with Jill and Gloria, it became apparent that Gloria’s hearing loss would necessitate an additional special piece of safety equipment. After the volunteer team installed three smoke alarms – upstairs, next to the kitchen, and in a basement bedroom – they identified that a bed shaker alarm was needed in the home. With this equipment, if a house fire was to start, smoke alarms both sound off and communicate with a device that shakes Gloria’s downstairs bed.

Testing the alarms, Gloria could faintly make out the traditional smoke alarms – “I can hear the beep-beep-beep” – though with the additional bed shaker, Jill knew their household was more fully prepared if a fire were ever to start in their home.

Blessings, ‘Star Wars’ and home fire safety: local stories from ‘Sound the Alarm’ 2019

Words by Wendy Rociles and Justin Kern / Photos by Hannah Hudson, Rociles and Kern, American Red Cross

More than 1,620 smoke alarms were installed in just shy of 800 homes across Wisconsin this spring during “Sound the Alarm. Save a Life,” an American Red Cross campaign for home fire safety.

Nationwide since 2014, the campaign has involved 1.7 million alarms and home fire escape plans brought to more than 709,000 homes. Among other results, the campaign has saved 589 lives to date, including a family of three in Janesville.

Soundthealarmhsh-83

After training and a rally, teams pulled together home fire safety tools before heading out into Wisconsin neighborhoods.

For the 2019 home fire safety push, events large and small spread across Wisconsin in late April and early May, including installations in Janesville, Barron and Brothertown, and in La Crosse, Dunn and Taylor counties. The two largest installation days occurred in Milwaukee (593 alarms in 225 homes by 223 volunteers) and the Fox Cities (823 alarms in 276 homes by 159 volunteers).


You can still bring this home fire safety campaign to your home. Enter your info at GetASmokeAlarm.org for an appointment.


Here are vignettes from this campaign to make our state safer and better prepared when it comes to home fires, the top disaster response on almost a daily occurrence for the Red Cross in Wisconsin.

‘Thank God you’re here’

Aretha Robertson breathed a sigh of relief once she heard why volunteers from the American Red Cross were at her door.

“My smoke alarm just started chirping today, thank God you’re here,” Robertson said.

Robertson was one of 225 residents in Milwaukee who received nearly 600 free smoke alarms during a one-day home fire safety blitz in Milwaukee by the Red Cross and partners as part of the “Sound the Alarm.”

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Volunteer Kristen Forseth, right, discusses a home fire escape plan with Milwaukee resident Cora Martin during the “Sound the Alarm. Save A Life” event.

Three trained volunteers – Kristen Forseth, Anthony Marzien and Joey Schulteis – installed a trio of new alarms in the home where Robertson lives with her husband. And while they did the installation, Robertson rang up three of her Washington Park neighbors to let them know about the free alarms and home fire escape opportunity.

One of those neighbors, Cora Martin, welcomed this same team of volunteers into her home, where her adorable puppy, Bentley, even received some good scratches for his enthusiasm at the newfound friends.

Martin also received three smoke alarms and said she was very happy that her husband, who has a medical condition, wouldn’t have to handle the installation himself.

These volunteers were three of more than 220 involved during the April 27 home fire safety event in Milwaukee, which primarily fanned out eastward from host site Harley Davidson on West Juneau Avenue. Volunteers toted alarms, tips for home fire and tornado preparedness, Snap-on drills and other instructions, along with a determination to make their city a safer place.

“I was really excited to be able to do this,” said Forseth, a first-time home fire safety volunteer and an employee with Harley. “I didn’t expect as much thanks as we’re getting, so it’s really awesome to be able to go in the home and hear homeowners say, ‘Thank you so much, you answered my prayers today.’”

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At one Menasha home, Ayden Overson and Garred Blanthorn replaced alarms in the kitchen while team member Mark Gallert talked tornado preparedness with the owner.

Safety on ‘May the Fourth’

After stopping by a smoke alarm appointment in Appleton on May 4, a volunteer team of Sharon Holt, Dean Haas and Joanie Micke knocked on the door of a next-door neighbor.

Laura Leyh answered and soon admitted she didn’t know the number of alarms in their two-story home, nor the last time the batteries were checked.

“I had no idea you did this. Of course, please come in,” Leyh said to the volunteer team.

Micke began discussing home fire escape plans with the five-person family, around the kitchen table for lunch, as Haas got permission to check on smoke alarms around the home. In the meantime, Holt shared a safety coloring book with the smiling, rambunctious kindergartener in the home, Lillian. (Nationally, 1.3 million youth have been reached with home fire safety lessons and materials to this point in the campaign.)

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Sharon Holt, left, shares a preparedness coloring book with Lillian Leyh during a “Sound the Alarm” visit in Appleton.

The Leyh home was decorated with an intricate, colored pencil drawings of R2-D2 and an explosive poster that featured Rey donning a lightsaber. It became clear on this installation date of May 4 that the family chose to include home fire safety as part of their “May the Fourth” celebration of the “Star Wars” movie franchise. Exiting the home, the Leyh family replied to one volunteer with a “May the Fourth Be With You” cheer.

2019 American Red Cross of Wisconsin “Sound the Alarm. Save A Life” Milwaukee and Fox Cities partner roster

  • Fox Valley Technical College
  • Menasha Corporation
  • Festival Foods
  • WHBY
  • Lands’ End
  • United Way Fox Cities
  • Appleton Fire Department

    Mark Thomas tests alarm NW STASAL 2019

    Mark Thomas, CEO, American Red Cross of Wisconsin, tests an alarm during a home fire safety stop at a home in Dunn County. 

  • Appleton City Hall
  • Menasha Health Department
  • Hmong American Partnership
  • Great Northern Corporation
  • Harley-Davidson
  • Wisconsin Tiffany Circle
  • We Energies
  • Lands’ End
  • Forest County Potawatomi Community
  • Milwaukee Fire Department
  • Nicholas Family Foundation
  • Laureate Group
  • HOPE Worldwide
  • Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
  • United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County
  • Coffee Makes You Black
  • Pete’s Fruit Market
  • Near West Side Partners, Inc.

 

‘Grateful’ installers, recipients of free smoke alarms and fire escape plans

By Wendy Rociles, American Red Cross

Dora Hogan was singing a grateful tune after a friend in her choir said she could get free smoke alarms installed in her Milwaukee home. American Red Cross volunteers who made the installations were grateful, too.

Jordan and family on 84th

American Red Cross volunteer Jordan Davis, right, talks over a home fire escape plan with Dora Hogan, left, & Alisa Jones. 

Hogan, a grandmother living on the west side of the city, said a smoke alarm in her living room had fallen from her ceiling, which made it difficult for her to replace. With family – including her beloved grandchildren – visiting often, Hogan found it essential to reach out to the Red Cross on their standing offer to provide free smoke alarms to those who need them.

Hogan made an appointment for the alarms (click here to find out how) and two Red Cross volunteers came to check out her home fire safety needs. Along with the living room replacement alarm, Red Cross volunteer Jordan Davis found another alarm in one of the bedrooms with a 1997 expiration date. A few additional alarms were in order, too, posted in important spots in the home to give Hogan peace of mind. Davis tested the alarms and, with a beep, everyone knew that the home was a safer place.

“The smoke alarms could save a life, especially with a lot of grandkids here all the time,” said Alisa Jones, Hogan’s daughter, who was present during the installations. “They could be doing anything: cooking, curling irons left on … I’m very grateful that we have the smoke alarms.”

Along with the alarms, Davis sat with Hogan and Jones to review fire safety tips and a fire escape plan. With these plans, in case of a fire, Hogan’s family will know exactly what to do and how to stay safe outside the home.

Sound the Alarm logoIn addition to installing smoke alarms, Davis volunteers on the Milwaukee area Disaster Action Team (DAT), a role that puts him in a place to comfort and help families involved in many local home fires. Davis said smoke alarm and home fire escape plan events like one coming up April 27 in Milwaukee are “crucial” when it comes to family preparedness.

“Responding with DAT in the aftermath of a home fire to provide comfort and resources to community members can be extremely challenging – and especially when one learns just how many residences in Milwaukee do not have working smoke alarms. Installing smoke alarms before a fire occurs, however, truly brings my service experience with the American Red Cross full circle,” Davis said.

If you don’t know if your smoke alarms are working or think you need new ones, please reach out. Red Cross volunteers are always here to help, such as numerous, day-long smoke alarm installation events coming up:

  • April 13 – Chippewa Valley
  • April 27 – Milwaukee
  • April 27 – La Crosse
  • May 4 – Fox Cities
  • May 4 – Janesville

Sign up for your free smoke alarm and home fire escape plan by entering your information at GetASmokeAlarm.org or by texting the word “Alarm” to 844-811-0100.

Mosaic partnership brings “extra protection” to northwestern Wisconsin homes

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

Rebecca Eliasen signed up for cable and phone service at her Barron, Wisconsin home. Her telecommunications installer also brought her peace of mind.

Mosaic Nate Rebecca install in Barron Nov 2018

Rebecca Eliasen, right, chatted with Nate Froehlich as he installed a new smoke alarm in her Barron home.

Nate Froehlich, a service technician with Mosaic Telecom, installed a smoke alarm at Eliasen’s home recently, as part of a trailblazing partnership with the American Red Cross of Wisconsin. Eliasen lives in the home with her boyfriend and her son, and she said she was relieved to be able to have the Mosaic technician check her existing smoke alarms and add one in the basement.

“It’s nice to have the extra protection, the extra safety,” said Eliasen. “You can never have too many, in case you can’t hear it or you’re a heavy sleeper.”

In the partnership, Mosaic technicians have been trained by the Red Cross to install free smoke alarms during scheduled service calls in and around Barron County. Mosaic is the first telco in the U.S. to perform these types of installs with the Red Cross. As of Nov. 15, one month into the partnership, Mosaic technicians had already installed 38 smoke alarms in homes across Barron County. The timing of the partnership is important, too, as winter weather brings with it an increase in home fires.

Barron ARC Mosaic install house

The Mosaic and Red Cross partnership brought more than 30 smoke alarms into northwestern Wisconsin homes in just the first month.

Across Wisconsin, the American Red Cross brings together volunteers, fire departments and corporate partners to install thousands of smoke alarms in homes. Some are done in single-day events, others in sporadic scheduling. It’s part of a nationwide campaign that, since 2014, has directly saved the lives of more than 470 people, including a family from Janesville.

Kyle Kriegl, Chapter Executive for the American Red Cross of Wisconsin – Northwestern Chapter, said the addition of Mosaic’s team “will make great strides toward improving home fire safety and awareness for residents in this part of the state.”

Shanna Roe, Marketing Specialist at Mosaic Telecom, said that it was easy to add the smoke alarms to their work flow when considering the wider aims for the community.

“The decision for Mosaic to partner with the Red Cross in the implementation of this program was simple – we are working together to save lives,” Roe said.

Along with the Mosaic partnership, free smoke alarms and home fire escape plans are available to anyone in need. To sign up, go to GetASmokeAlarm.org.