Red Cross-installed smoke alarm alerts mobile home residents to fire
San Jose resident Nguyen Robson had been an American Red Cross volunteer for less than a year when he was called to help two mobile home residents displaced by a fire and received a vivid lesson about his volunteer work’s impact.
When Robson arrived at the Sunshadow mobile home park in San Jose, the two residents — waiting safely outside their home — greeted him with grateful recognition in their native Vietnamese. They remembered Robson as one of the volunteers who had installed smoke alarms and helped them prepare an evacuation plan for their mobile home only six months earlier. The alarm woke them from a mid-afternoon nap and allowed their escape.
San Jose Fire Department Captain Mitch Matlow, who was on the scene both for the smoke alarm installation on Feb. 16 and for the August 14 fire, later described what happened. “When we got on scene, that alarm was going off. That’s what alerted the people there was a fire in their home,” Matlow said.
The owner of the mobile home and the couple who had been napping when the fire started all expressed gratitude. “They thanked me for coming to the house to install the fire detectors and also for being there after the fire to help out,” Robson said.
Robson said he became a Red Cross volunteer for the Silicon Valley chapter in the hopes of giving exactly that type of help, after hearing of several fatal fires in his Vietnamese community. After a grandfather and two children were killed in a swiftly-moving mobile home fire in August 2017 fire, Robson said he was so touched he attended the funeral.
“It really hit me,” he said. “It could have been avoided.”
He became a volunteer on the Silicon Valley chapter’s Disaster Action Team, which responds after residential fires to help displaced residents, and also started helping at Sound the Alarm events, installing smoke alarms and educating people on fire safety and prevention. As a speaker of Vietnamese and English, he has used his bilingual skills in both volunteer activities.
Terry Unter, the Silicon Valley chapter’s board chair and disaster lead, said the chapter has been partnering with San Jose Fire since September 2017 on Sound the Alarm events. The Sound the Alarm campaign started in 2014 and nationally has installed more than 2 million smoke alarms saving close to 700 lives.
In San Jose, Sound the Alarm has focused on installing alarms in all 59 of the cities’ mobile home parks.
“The reason the program is a good one is there are areas in this community where folks can’t afford to put the smoke detectors in their own homes,” San Jose Fire’s Matlow said. Mobile homes are a priority he said, because they burn quickly and “the level of damage is much more severe” than in a conventionally built structure.
Similar to kindling used to start a campfire, the smaller structural lumber in a mobile home can ignite more quickly and burn more rapidly than larger lumber, Matlow said.
“You couple that with low economic resources” which can lead to deferred maintenance and crowding, and “the deck is loaded against” mobile home residents, he said.
Since San Jose Fire joined forces with the Red Cross in 2017, more than 4,500 alarms have been installed in more than 1,400 homes during 19 Sound the Alarm events, Unter said. The chapter holds Sound the Alarm events throughout Santa Clara County, often partnering with fire departments, he said.
The San Jose Fire Department received a $75,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to support the program. Unter said the grant money has been used to buy smoke alarms that also have carbon monoxide detectors, to publicize the program and provide education material in five languages.
Unter said when the Silicon Valley chapter started its Sound the Alarm program in 2015 it was successful in installing alarms in only about 10 percent of the homes in targeted neighborhoods. By adding more outreach in advance of events, and partnering with fire departments, the number of homes served now is as much as 50 percent in a targeted area, he said.
About 100 volunteers help with each event, both Red Cross and community volunteers. Red Cross volunteer Robson said he has recruited several of his friends who help at every event.
Bilingual volunteers assist residents who have limited English, and educational materials are available in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Cantonese, and Mandarin.
Robson said despite working several jobs he helps with as many events as possible. “If I’m available on the event day, I will be there because I think it’s very important,” he said.
“I just want to help out.”
More information about the Sound the Alarm campaign is available here.
Barbara Wood is a volunteer writer with the Northern California Coastal Region.