USF COPH students team up with community partners to reduce home fire deaths and injuries

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Students and faculty from the USF College of Public Health have teamed up with the American Red Cross of Tampa Bay, Tampa Fire-Rescue, Hillsborough County Fire-Rescue, Hillsborough County Neighborhood Services, and Community Emergency Response Team members for door-to-door fire safety education and free smoke alarm installation events for Tampa-area homes.

On Feb. 7, more than 70 volunteers serviced the neighborhood near USF, east of Busch Gardens. Another event took place on March 31 when a team of 40 volunteers focused on Progress Village in the Riverview area. Both events are considered successful, as a total of 553 homes are now equipped with smoke alarms, and each family was educated about the importance of an escape plan.

“We will continue to connect with community partners to provide our students with an opportunity to make a difference in these high-risk areas,” said COPH faculty member Elizabeth Dunn. “In the coming months, we will continue to be involved in providing disaster preparedness education and be a part of these mitigation efforts.”

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This initiative is part of the Red Cross Home Fire Preparedness Campaign designed to reduce deaths and injuries from home fires by as much as 25% over the next five years.

“Witnessing first-hand that there are families living without smoke detectors was frightening,” said USF student Carolyn Morales. “However, I am comforted to know that the Red Cross is providing these families with a peace of mind, and being able to be a part of this campaign was a rewarding experience.”

Since October 2014, volunteers throughout Central Florida have visited nearly 2,500 homes and installed more than 1,400 free smoke alarms. Across the country, more than 40,000 alarms have been installed as part of this campaign. The goal of the campaign is to install 62,000 alarms by June 30.

“Installing smoke alarms cuts the risk of someone dying from a home fire in half, so we’re joining with groups from across our community to install free smoke alarms,” said Janet McGuire, spokesperson for the Red Cross Tampa Bay Chapter. “We also will be teaching people how to be safe from home fire.”

The campaign is an effort to provide public health education and to ensure residents in our community are able to get out safe if their home is affected by a fire.

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“You would be surprised how many homes did not have smoke alarms installed, not just in need of batteries but they never had a smoke alarm to begin with,” said COPH student Aarzoo Bukhari. “Our team was able to install seven smoke alarms in the 50 homes that we visited; unfortunately, some were reluctant to have us install the smoke alarms despite offering them at no cost to the occupant.”

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Even as the Red Cross and other groups install smoke alarms in some neighborhoods, they are calling on everyone to take two simple steps that can save lives: check their existing smoke alarms and practice fire drills at home.

“Going out to promote safety and prevention of house fires is a remarkable experience,” said COPH DrPh candidate Arturo Rebollon, MD. “People are genuinely not aware of the importance of having a working smoke detector until it’s too late. One of the houses we visited actually had a recent fire, and they went with us to their neighbor’s house to make sure they installed a smoke detector in their home. It is amazing seeing communities come together, truly looking out for one another.  And I feel proud to be part of that.”

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A national survey shows that many Americans have a false sense of security about surviving a fire. The survey, conducted for the Red Cross, shows that people mistakenly believe they have more time than they really do to escape a burning home.

According to the survey, 62% of Americans believe they have at least five minutes to escape a home on fire, and 18% believe they have ten minutes or more. However, fire experts agree that the reality is that residents usually have less than two minutes to escape a burning home before it’s too late to get out.

The survey found:

  • Less than one in five of families with children age 3-17 report that they’ve actually practiced home fire drills; that’s 18% that take the time to practice their plan.
  • Less than half of parents have talked to their families about fire safety.
  • Only one-third of families with children have identified a safe place to meet outside their home.

The Red Cross responds to nearly 70,000 disasters each year in the United States, and the vast majority of those are home fires. In Tampa Bay, the Red Cross Disaster Action Team responded to 449 home fires last year alone. Many COPH students volunteer on these teams and assist families with immediate needs following their loss.

USF student Jordan Moberg shared why she serves on the Disaster Action Team.

“Last summer, I took the Community Engagement in Public Health course with Ms. Dunn,” Moberg said. “Now, I volunteer with the Red Cross Disaster Action Team, because it puts me directly in the line of duty working to bring relief to those impacted by an unexpected disaster. We get called out by 911 dispatch and arrive when the fire department is on scene fighting the fire. They focus on the home, while we focus on the needs of the family.”

For more information on how you can get involved, contact Elizabeth Dunn, MPH, CPH, at or Patricia Fox, SPHR, at

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