Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 3:42 PM on Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Now's time to think: Fire or other disaster could happen to me

With everyone talking about last week's fire at the Landings Condominiums, Elaine Grabowski is hoping the time is right for people to change the way they think. Completely erase the notion "Something like that will never happen to me" and start thinking "A fire — or some other disaster — could happen to me," she says.

That shift in thinking can help people prepare for the worst and better cope with the trauma of a tragedy if and when it does happen.

Grabowski is the Homer Volunteer Fire Department's services coordinator, which means she not only fights fires and responds to medical emergencies, but she also provides public education in addition to other job duties. In the wake of the June 27 fire, Grabowski is hopeful people will hear things they know they should do, but haven't. For example:

• Check the smoke detectors in your home. Do they have batteries? Are they working? Smoke detectors are the cheapest insurance around, says Grabowski. They are the early warning people need to get out of danger when seconds count. She doesn't want to scare people — just educate them — but from the time a fire breaks out until the room of the fire's origin is fully engulfed in flames may be only 60 seconds.

• Practice exit drills in your home. If a fire breaks out, does your family have a plan? How do you get out of a second story window? Where do you go once you're out of the house?

• Make copies of things you don't want to lose in a fire and store them in a safety deposit box, with relatives or friends or in a fire safe (but make sure you read the specifications on the safe; not all will survive a fire).

• If you don't have insurance, check it out. It may be more affordable than you think. Renters should know their landlord's insurance doesn't cover their belongings in the event of a fire.

• Reduce the fire load in your home by cleaning out junk. The more stuff you have in your home, the more that can burn. All that stuff can block your exit from a fire and it can hinder firefighting efforts.

• Don't store flammables and explosives — things like gasoline, antifreeze, lighter fluid, propane and paint thinner — in your home.

• Read directions for your home's heating devices, electronic equipment and compact fluorescent bulbs (not all are suited to areas that have moisture) and follow them to the letter.

• Don't buy a space heater — no matter how good a bargain it may seem — without a trip device. Don't trust the automatic shutoff features of appliances. And don't leave appliances plugged in. As long as an appliance is still plugged into the wall, you still have power, says Grabowski.

That's not an exhaustive list on fire prevention; Grabowski has plenty more tips. People can contact her at the fire department for more information or Google "fire safety."

As important as it is to practice fire prevention, once a fire — or other tragedy — has occurred, how can people best help the victims?

Grabowski has some tips for that as well. What people need is comfort and tangible help — housing, food, clothing, household items, transportation and money. What they don't need is to feel blamed for why the fire started, they don't need gossip and they don't need to be asked about their plans, she says. They're in shock; kind words, encouragement and a show of support in the midst of their tragedy will be appreciated, says Grabowski. People can donate new or gently used items or cash to places like the American Red Cross or The Salvation Army.

Grabowski even has a suggestion she gleaned many years ago from a fire victim, who didn't know how to respond when people asked "How can I help?" He knew people were sincere in their desire to help, so he wrote different needs on slips of paper that he kept in his pocket — for example, four mugs, a blanket, a meal on Thursday night, a pillow, a soup pot, a soup ladle, a pair of winter socks, you get the idea. When people asked what they could do, he handed them a slip of paper with a specific request.

Our sympathy to those who lost their homes in the June 27 fire and our thanks to a community who rallies around those who need help.