Six children and a young woman died in a Pittsburgh area house fire early Saturday morning. Firefighters say they didn't have a chance. The home had a smoke alarm but it wasn't working.
"They had some heating problems," said Pennsylvania state trooper Brian Burden. "They were using multiple sources of heat in order to keep the residence warm."
The deaths are the latest in a disturbing trend. In just the last two weeks, at least 59 people have died in house fires across the country. In the first six weeks of 2007, at least 88 people have been killed in catastrophic multiple-fatality fires, with almost 60 percent of the victims being children.
"It's very alarming," said Alan Etter, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C., Fire and E.M.S. Department. "I can't recall a time in recent history where there have been so many fatalities so close together."
"We have got do something," said International Association of Fire Chiefs President Jim Harmes. "Our citizens now have more protection available for their homes than ever before, and yet people are losing their lives because they are not taking this protection seriously."
Firefighters admit they don't know why this is happening. They suspect the recent cold snap, coupled with power outages, has forced people to find other ways to warm themselves.
They warn you should never leave portable generators, space heaters, candles and cigarettes unattended. Also, you should make sure your chimney and furnace are properly maintained.
"I think people get a little complacent because they've heard the same message over and over again," said Etter. "You don't think it's going to happen to you. Well, it does happen to you. It happens to people just like us every single day."
Firefighters say your single most important investment is a working smoke detector. Before Washington, D.C. implemented a fire safety education program focused on the importance of smoke alarms, more than 70 people were dying in fires each year. That number has now dropped to less than 20.
"Working smoke detectors do save lives," Harmes said. "One life saved is more than anyone can pay for a smoke detector. You cannot in any way, shape or form put a value on a smoke alarm when it saves a life."
Recommendations from the International Association of Fire Chiefs (www.iafc.org):
Check smoke and carbon monoxide alarms to be sure they are working properly.
Have an escape plan with a meeting place.
Once you exit your home, DO NOT RETURN. Too many people lose their lives going back into a burning home.
Stoves are not made for heating homes.
Supplemental heating devices should be used and maintained in accordance with manufacturer recommendations. Keep combustibles clear. Do not leave supplemental heating devices unattended.
If you are burning wood in your fireplace, make sure your chimneys are properly maintained. That goes for your furnace as well.
If candles are necessary, use them in a safe environment in a fireproof container and away from children. Do not leave them unattended.
And for the long term, consider getting a residential fire sprinkler. According to statistics, the risk of death by fire is reduced by 82 percent when smoke detectors are accompanied with residential fire sprinklers.