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.

 

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.