I want to tell you a story.

It’s not about disasters that make headlines, like the California wildfires or Hurricane Lane. It’s about a disaster that claims lives in your community every day, but that you might never have heard of. It affects individuals and families in cities and towns across the United States and around the world. And yet in spite of all this, it gets little to no coverage.

I’m talking about home fires.

Home fires claims on average seven lives a day, disproportionately affecting the young and the elderly. Another 36 suffer injuries like burns and smoke inhalation. These fires cause $7 billion in damage each year, destroying not just essentials like clothing and furniture, but also treasured keepsakes and important documents, making recovery that much harder.

Imagine losing your home, your possessions, your sense of security, all in one day. Imagine the family photographs, the passports and birth certificates, lost in the blaze.

That’s the devastation of a home fire.

I personally have seen the devastation a home fire can bring, as I helped sift through the ashes alongside Red Cross volunteers at the site of a home fire in my own community of Los Angeles.

Before the Fire Starts

But the home fire story does not have to be all about devastation. Because this disaster, unlike hurricanes or wildfires, is preventable.

The American Red Cross is working to reduce deaths and injuries from home fires by 25% over the next five years. And we are doing that by mobilizing a force of thousands of volunteers to install smoke alarms in vulnerable communities across the country as part of our Sound the Alarm campaign.

Alongside firefighters and other community members, we canvas neighborhoods at risk of home fires, install free smoke alarms, replace batteries in existing alarms, and teach fire prevention and safety education.

I want to take a moment to thank the 1,000 members of our incredible partner MERCY Worldwide in the Los Angeles community, who joined us on one of those campaigns, and installed 12,000 smoke alarms in homes across the county. They truly live their motto, “Serving People, Saving Lives.”

Red Cross Los Angeles Region CEO Jarrett Barrios speaks to MERCY Worldwide volunteers in Anaheim, CA

I spoke to thousands of volunteers and members of the community as we went door to door installing smoke alarms and teaching children and adults what to do in the case of a home fire. We left them not only with the smoke alarms that could alert them to the next disaster, but also with the knowledge to respond and save their own lives, and the lives of the ones they love.

After the Smoke Clears

Unfortunately, not all of our work around home fires is prevention. The Red Cross responds to on average two home fires a day in the Los Angeles area. When we get the call from the fire department of an active home fire, our disaster action team (DAT) volunteers respond, alongside trained staff, at all hours of the day and night, all across southern California. These fires are often sparked by a dish towel left on the stove, a small spark from faulty wiring, or something similarly innocuous.

The causes of home fires may be small, but the impact they have on thousands of individuals and families is not. Losing your home to fire means days, weeks, or more without permanent shelter, the loss of precious possessions, and, in the worse case scenarios, loss of a loved one or loss of one’s own life.

That’s why the Red Cross not only responds to the scene, setting up shelters, and providing comfort and care, but also to staying with the family after the fire trucks leave and the smoke clears. Our team of case managers stays in touch with families on average 30 to 45 days after the disaster, helping them find temporary housing and navigate the system of services offered by the Red Cross, the city and county, and other organizations, to ensure they get the care they need.

From Start to Finish

We help families recover from fire, support them through the process of rebuilding their lives, and install smoke alarms to help them avoid the next one. It’s a recovery process we support from start to finish, hoping that next time, that preparedness pieces we help put in place will mean one less fire, one less family losing their home, one less sobering statistic.

But instead, here are some more hopeful stats. Since 2014, we’ve installed over 1 million smoke alarms, helping over half a million homes become safer, and in the process, educated over 1 million youth through the program.

This is the impact the Red Cross, our incredible network of volunteers, and community partners can achieve. Because together, we can tackle not just the headline-making disasters, but the ones that affect members of our community every day.


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