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.

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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.

 

‘Gwen T. Jackson Day’ sights and proclamation

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

May 28 was proclaimed “Gwen T. Jackson Day” in Milwaukee County, a recognition of her tireless decades of volunteerism and community service. That included more than 60 years with the American Red Cross, in roles that ranged from famine relief for Africa, support of U.S. service members and expansion of diversity in volunteerism, to the highest ranks for a volunteer in the organization, as National Volunteer Chairman in Washington, D.C.

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Mark Thomas shares reflections on Gwen Jackon’s impact on Milwaukee and the nation as a volunteer leader with the American Red Cross.

To honor Gwen T. Jackson Day on what would have been her 91st birthday, organizations close to Gwen’s legacy of work gathered on Tuesday to share stories, food and her spirit of community service. Our hope is to build upon Gwen’s legacy to create an annual day that acknowledges volunteerism and community action across Milwaukee.

“As someone who grew up in this community and spent much of my professional career here, I know I’m able to be the CEO of the Red Cross because [of] someone like Gwen Jackson,” said Mark Thomas, CEO and Southeast Chapter Executive.


There are numerous ways you can use your talents toward good in the Milwaukee area. Click here to find out more.


In this blog are a few pictures from the event, which included Red Cross and United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County, which was held at one of her favorite art galleries and community spaces, King Drive Commons Gallery and Studio. In addition, we’ve included the full proclamation from Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele.

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During an event held in her honor, Gwen Jackson pictures and momentos were on display at one of her favorite spaces, King Drive Commons Gallery and Studios.

Executive Proclamation

Whereas, on May 28, 1928, Gwen T. Jackson was entered this earth and on March 24, 2019, at the age of 90, Gwen T. Jackson was born into eternal life; and

Whereas, we now take time to recognize the loss of an important member of not only our community but also a loving mother, daughter, wife, sister and friend; and

Whereas, we will never forget Gwen’s civic leadership and commitments to our community. Gwen retired as a Human Resources Vice President from Brills Colony Men’s Clothing Store. Her volunteer service includes time with the United Way, Urban League, YMCA, and more than 60 years of volunteering with the American Red Cross. Gwen held the National Chairman Volunteer position for four years with the American Red Cross, the highest volunteer position available; and

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Milwaukee disaster action team volunteers serve food and listen in during drumming played at a Gwen T. Jackson Day event in Milwaukee.

Whereas, in addition to volunteering for disaster relief, Gwen dedicated service to our most vulnerable populations – senior citizens and children. Gwen served as Commissioner Emeritus of the Milwaukee County Commission on Aging, and worked to improve the educational outcomes of young people in Milwaukee, having 21st Street School renamed the Gwen T. Jackson Early Childhood Elementary School; and

Whereas, Gwen’s effervescent spirit, perpetual optimism, unending loyalty and constant cheer were a blessing to everyone around her,

I, Chris Abele, do hereby proclaim May 28, 2019 as Gwen T. Jackson Day throughout Milwaukee County, and I offer my support to the family and friends of Gwen as well as appreciation for her positive contributions to Milwaukee County.

‘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.

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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.

A Hand Up for Veterans at Milwaukee Stand Down Rally

By Justin Kern – American Red Cross

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Walter Donaldson joined 172 veterans Saturday at the Milwaukee Veterans Stand Down.

With icy rain and whipping winds outside of the Richards Street Armory in Milwaukee, Walter Donaldson was perfectly content to reminisce on warmer and brighter days, during the 1990s, when he lived in Florida.

Donaldson lived there during and after his service in the Army. He taught high school students and even volunteered for the American Red Cross after a tropical storm. The years since then haven’t always been easy or kind to Donaldson, he said, with a wizened smile and a follow up declaration that he’s doing better now, with a place to stay on the southwest side of Milwaukee and a chance to teach again. On this day, he attributed an upbeat attitude partly to thoughts of Florida during a Midwestern winter, and partly from the clothing, personal items and resources he received at the Milwaukee Veterans Stand Down.

“This helps. I’m grateful, all of this helps,” Donaldson said, pointing to clothing and Red Cross bags.

Donaldson joined more than 170 area veterans at the Stand Down rally at The Armory, a bi-annual event that focuses on homeless or at-risk veterans. At Saturday’s Stand Down, veterans had the opportunity to meet with dozens of organizations, including the Red Cross, veterans’ groups and food providers, health professionals and hair stylists, as well as various state and federal agencies. Service to the Armed Forces volunteers and staff from the Red Cross once again provided hygiene items and informational/communication resources for veterans.

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A veteran in prayer during Saturday’s event at The Richards Street Armory.

The event is billed as a “hand up, not a handout” for veterans. Between meals, check-ins and conversation, the rally included call-and-response shout outs to the five branches of the military, patriotic songs and a plea from organizer Stan Kogutkiewicz for vets in the crowd to use the resources in the room.

“Do not leave here until you get going on your problems,” echoed George Martin, one of the event emcees.

For Marvin Britton, that meant taking a stroll through the booths that packed The Armory. Britton’s gold Army ring caught the light as he talked and clutched onto a smooth wooden cane, as he shared straightforward stories of service, of addiction, of sweethearts long gone. Since his service in Vietnam, from 1974-78, life took him to San Diego and La Crosse, with time on and off in Milwaukee. These days, he’s staying in Union Grove at the Wisconsin Veterans Home, from where a group of veterans bused in for the rally.

“I’m fine, now … just trying to stay healthy. Got my backpack, going to the booths after I get some of [those] clothes” from the clothing donation line, he said.

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Veterans received information on ways they can connect with resources and family from the American Red Cross.

Ready to meet Britton, Donaldson and all the veterans were volunteers like Bob Nelson. Nelson joined the small team handing out American Red Cross bags with hygiene items and veterans resources information at the west end of the stout military hall. Nelson’s son is in the Marine Corps, connecting him to a lineage of men who have served in their family. For Bob Nelson – also on the Red Cross disaster action team – meeting and sharing with veterans at the Stand Down rally is a small gesture of gratitude.

“This is something I can do, I can be here,” Nelson said.

For more information on the Milwaukee Veterans Stand Down event, click here.

To get involved or find out more on the Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces mission for veterans and military service members and their families, click here.

Mark Thomas to join American Red Cross as Wisconsin Region CEO, SE Chapter Executive

The American Red Cross today welcomes Mark Thomas as its new Wisconsin Region CEO and Southeast Wisconsin Chapter Executive.

Mark Thomas - headshot Dec 2018Thomas has deep nonprofit and for-profit executive experience, with strengths in sales and operations management, and strategic leadership skills. Thomas has led or participated in fundraising efforts for The American Heart Association, United Performing Arts Fund and The United Way. Most recently, he served as Vice President and COO for the Sojourner Family Peace Center in Milwaukee.

Thomas said the people and mission of the American Red Cross provide an opportunity to extend his professional expertise and his dedication to Milwaukee and Wisconsin.

“The staff, volunteers, donors and advocates at the Red Cross provide our state with a powerful resource for positive change, from home fire recovery and military support, to safety training, responses to national disasters and ensuring a strong blood supply,” Thomas said. “I am grateful to help lead such a highly regarded organization with a commitment to Milwaukee and Wisconsin that spans more than 100 years.”

His professional background also includes leadership roles at The Milwaukee Business Journal, Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

A Milwaukee native who lives in Mequon with his family, Thomas has and currently serves on numerous nonprofit boards, and has been recognized on numerous occasions for his contributions to the community.

Patty Flowers, the prior CEO and Chapter Executive, retired recently after eight-and-a-half years of remarkable growth and collaboration across the five chapters and two biomed territories in the state.

For more information on other Wisconsin Red Cross executives and locations, click here.

Thomas officially starts his leadership role effective Dec. 12, 2018.

From witness to volunteer: the expansive work of dedicated mental health volunteer Naomi Berkowitz

by Michele Maki, Public Affairs volunteer, American Red Cross

naomi berkowitzIn the 17 years since a deadly tornado jolted her psyche, Naomi Berkowitz has dedicated herself to the mental well-being of others experiencing tragedy as an American Red Cross mental health volunteer.

It all started when Naomi and her family were driving to Minnesota. Suddenly, the traffic stalled, and she noticed there was no oncoming traffic. As they were detoured, the family passed downed trees, debris and a Red Cross emergency vehicle. It was June 18, 2001, and a tornado had just ripped through Siren, Wisconsin, leveling much of the village and killing three people.

“We had no idea there had been a tornado outbreak that day. There was no siren and we had no warning.” Berkowitz remembered.

The images couldn’t be erased from Berkowitz’s mind, and when she returned to her home near Milwaukee, she drove to the chapter office of the American Red Cross and signed up as a volunteer.

Berkowitz worked professionally as a mental health therapist and it wasn’t long before she discovered that those skills were needed in the volunteer realm, too.

“Before this event in Siren, I had heard about the Red Cross. But, I didn’t realize the extraordinary lengths the Red Cross goes through to support those affected by disasters. I really, really had no idea.”

Berkowitz found out that there are many kinds of disasters and traumatic events the Red Cross will be called upon to respond and assist. These range from natural disasters like a flood or tornado, to events that require mass evacuations like an industrial explosion. It may also include mass casualty events like a mass shooting or transportation disaster.

downloadMay is national Mental Health Awareness Month, and Naomi’s skills and compassion provide a vital resource to innumerable local and national people affected by traumatic events, said Christie Catlin, Disaster Recovery Manager, American Red Cross of Wisconsin.

“There are so many aspects to recovery for the people served by the Red Cross. Naomi and her colleagues on the Disaster Mental Health team can be an amazing resource for clients who may be carrying incredible pain or stress,” Catlin said. “She’s also become a great voice and resource for her fellow volunteers on the frontlines, who are also dealing with these disasters. I’m proud to have Naomi on our team.”

Naomi Berkowitz has moved up the volunteer ranks to become the Disaster Mental Health Wisconsin Region Program Lead. She’s also been on numerous deployments across the U.S. Most recently, she was deployed for Hurricane Harvey in Texas and again for the deadly California wildfires and subsequent mudslides.

“We meet with those who have survived unthinkable trauma,” she said. “They’ve lost their home, possessions, and sometimes neighbors and loved ones. Our disaster mental health teams listen, without judgment, and offer emotional support and tools to help them with stress management, coping skills, and if appropriate, referrals to local resources.”  

Berkowitz added: “And always, all of our Red Cross services are confidential and free. These are trained mental health professionals and there is never any charge for Red Cross assistance. This is made possible by our generous donors.”

Berkowitz and her colleagues know that part of the recovery process for those affected by trauma, is navigating the triggers that can ambush a survivor after the event.

“Anniversaries can be very difficult. But if the individual prepares and understands this, they can be ready for all those feelings and memories that spring up,” she said. “We try to help prepare them and give them those tools for coping with it.”

Berkowitz explained further, with an example: “A couple of years ago there was a big condo fire. The main building was totally destroyed, and although the surrounding buildings were relatively undamaged, the residents that had been evacuated were still quite traumatized. They were really struggling. It had hit them: This could have been me!”

So, Berkowitz, gathered the Red Cross Disaster Action Team that had responded to the fire and some of the firefighters to meet with the residents. In this way, they had an opportunity to talk out and vent their experience and their fears. This was an important step for these residents in their journey to recovery.

The disaster mental health volunteers also help prepare communities for traumatic events. “Coping in Today’s World” is a program they offer to community leaders and groups.

“Programs like this can give a community some simple tools for handling stress and develop coping skills. It’s not therapy, but these are important support tools.” Berkowitz explained.

But, with multiple deployments each year to disasters like Hurricane Harvey, how do the Red Cross volunteers, themselves, cope with all the suffering they see?

Berkowitz explained: “We want to take good care of those kind hearts! During the deployments, we walk around, visit and remind our volunteers of the same things we tell our clients: be sure to drink your water and stay hydrated. Get appropriate rest, and eat healthy. Take a break and take a walk. And, if you’re feeling like you need some support, we’re here for you.

“After our volunteers return home, we follow up with a post-deployment follow up phone call just to check in on them. They’ve served long, long hours and been apart from family for weeks.  Coming back to ‘the world’ can be difficult. We want to support our volunteers in every way we can.”

Volunteers like Naomi Berkowitz continue to reach out to assist all in need: from a home fire to wildfire, from school shooting to train derailment, from volunteer to community group, the mental health volunteers from the American Red Cross are ready 24/7 to serve and assist. For more information on how you can help be more prepared or to become a Red Cross volunteer, visit here.  

Installing smoke alarms and peace of mind

by Justin Kern, American Red Cross of Wisconsin

For Renee Hovland and Ms. Bowman, volunteers installed peace of mind along with smoke alarms during recent communitywide events.

The two Wisconsin residents welcomed Red Cross volunteers and partners into their respective homes as part of “Sound the Alarm, Save a Life,” a national campaign to reduce injury and death from home fires.

Madison STASAL volunteers prep

Volunteers receive tools, alarms and instruction in Madison at event host, American Family Insurance HQ.

Hundreds of volunteers teamed up with a goal to install 1,400 smoke alarms during separate, daylong events in Milwaukee and Madison. Other cities and counties have or will hold their own installation roundups. (Click here to sign up for a free smoke alarm installed as part of this ongoing campaign.)

During the recent communitywide events in Milwaukee and Madison, Renee and Ms. Bowman shared the stories behind their installations.

‘It means the world to me’
Renee Hovland and her family know firsthand the impact of a house fire.

On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, 11 years ago, a candle burned out of control and “took down our whole house,” she said. Seven fire crews came to the site of their house in McFarland, on the outskirts of Madison, even tapping a neighbor’s pool to help contain the blaze.

The Hovlands – Renee, her husband Eric, their two daughters, plus three dogs and two cats – lost that home and all their possessions. But, they were alive and unscathed. They rebuilt on the same property.

Madison Sound the Alarm install family

Charles installs an alarm at the Hovland house with his family team, Crystal (center) and Samantha.

So, when they received a flyer about the fire department and Red Cross teaming up to install smoke alarms on May 5, Renee made an appointment.

“We had hardwired smoke detectors when we rebuilt and some of them are past the date that they’re still working,” Renee said. “It’s been something that’s bothering me, knowing that don’t have current alarm equipment that’s working. To me, this is a huge deal.”

A volunteer team of four family members installed five smoke alarms in the Hovland house and talked through an escape plan with Eric. As Renee brought their dogs outside to prevent a distraction, she reflected on the sense of security she’s gained from the free installations.

“It means the world to me,” she said. “I honestly can’t afford to buy that many [smoke alarms] and putting them up on a ladder, with my health, I can’t do that. It’s huge, a huge help.”

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In his Milwaukee kitchen, Donta Geter, right, talks through a fire escape plan with Red Cross volunteer Shelly Grasso.

‘That’s a blessing’
Donta Geter invited a team of Red Cross volunteers from Marquette University into his family’s majestic, three-story red brick home in Milwaukee’s Cold Spring Park neighborhood on April 28. Donta pointed to a few spots in and around the living room that lacked a working smoke alarm. Then, he helped his grandmother – who introduced herself as “Ms. Bowman” – into the kitchen to establish a fire escape plan with volunteer Shelly Grasso.

Shelly drew an escape map onto a dry erase board with input from Donta and Ms. Bowman, as the other volunteers snaked their way up the home’s back stairwell to install alarms on the second story and in the attic.

“Nope, we don’t have a plan,” said Ms. Bowman. “We were always under the assumption that if there’s a front entrance and a back exit, you go out [of one of those]. But … you might have to go out of one of these windows!”

Milwaukee Sound the Alarm pin 2018Ms. Bowman and Donta talked with Shelly about the best ways to get out in the event of a disaster, and then posted that map on their refrigerator. In the meantime the other volunteers had finished installing three new alarms and replacing another.
Ms. Bowman remarked: “Thank you for all of this. That’s a blessing.”

For more information on the home fire safety campaign – including installation signups and volunteering – click here.