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Volunteers fan out to install smoke detectors in Queens homes

A Red Cross program aims to reduce, by 25 percent by 2020, fire-related deaths and injuries in American homes. The Red Cross installed 28,000 of the detectors in the area in the most recent fiscal year.

Teams of Red Cross volunteers fanned out in Queens to install smoke detectors in homes on Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018. (Credit: Newsday / Matthew Chayes)

Rosalind Yu of Flushing is pretty sure her smoke detector hasn't worked for years.

Yu, a retired secretary at a law office who lives with her husband and daughter, gestured up to her kitchen's doorway — taller than she can reach.

"I don't know even know how to test it," she told a pair of Red Cross volunteers Saturday there to install replacements. "I believe the batteries are dead."

Yu — who said she is over 75 — was one of about 70 appointments in Queens under a Red Cross program to reduce, by 25 percent by 2020, fire-related deaths and injuries in American homes.

She had read a few weeks ago in the World Journal, a local Chinese-language newspaper, about the effort and she signed up. And a few weeks later — Saturday morning — a red-vested team made its first stop of the morning in her sixth-floor condo, brandishing a drill, screws and two new smoke detectors.

Smoke detectors can offer a life-or-death opportunity to escape a fire — but only if a person knows there's smoke.

"In our history responding to home fires, we frequently see some incredibly tragic incidents that are literally the result of people not even knowing to get out," said Neela Lockel, chief executive of the American Red Cross on Long Island, who joined the volunteers at Yu's home. "Smoke detectors, very simply, save lives."

The Red Cross usually installs smoke detectors that also alert an occupant to the presence of carbon monoxide, but the "combo alarms" are on back-order from the FDNY, the Red Cross' supplier, she said. The Red Cross' national office provided the alarms installed Saturday, said Joe Spaccarelli, director of the Red Cross' Home Fire Preparedness program.

In the most recent fiscal year, the Red Cross installed 28,000 of the detectors in the area, 3,500 of which on Long Island, Spaccarelli said. They are available at  800 RED-CROSS  or 

Early Saturday morning, before fanning out to homes like Yu’s, about 30 volunteers sat in folding chairs in the Taiwan Center on Northern Boulevard, powering through an orientation with doughnuts, mini bagels and coffee cakes.

The volunteers learned how to install a smoke detector from a tattooed AmeriCorps worker named Reilly Egan, 23, of East Harlem (“avoid corners,” and “if you’re installing on a wall, 4 inches below the ceiling, and if you’re installing on the ceiling, 6 inches from a wall, is a good rule of thumb”).

A pair of FDNY lieutenants lectured the group on preventing and extinguishing fires (avoid distraction while cooking, keep baking soda handy to douse a small cooking fire, spray a bigger fire, side to side, with a fire extinguisher, said the FDNY’s Michael Kozo). Such presentations are given to about 750,000 people every year, FDNY spokesman Frank Dwyer said Friday.

The team at Rosalind Yu’s home was done in under 40 minutes, including testing the new detectors — one outside the kitchen, another in the bedroom — and suggesting she shut off false alarms with a nearby broom.

The devices, volunteer Henry Chu told Yu, should last a decade.

"In another 10 years," Yu said with a smile, "I'll call you."


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