On our recent walk together, a Washington Park neighbor, Dana, shared a story about a house across the street from hers that recently burned down.
“It was 5 p.m. in the afternoon when we heard the sirens and came out to find the firetrucks. A few of us stood around, realizing we knew next to nothing about this neighbor, a couple with a young child who were renters. I felt a sudden sadness, first, for the family, but also, for how remiss I had been in simply finding a way to be more neighborly. Fortunately, the family wasn’t at home during this tragedy, but none of us knew how to contact them or offer them support.”
This story provoked me on a couple of levels. Dana and I are both volunteers with the Madison Park Emergency Hub, and our focus for emergencies has primarily been on anticipating a destructive earthquake from either the Cascadia or Seattle fault lines, either of which could be massively disruptive. We’ve learned that while a wildfire is unlikely in Seattle with our city far from any wildland areas, fires have historically been a deadly secondary impact of earthquakes, often caused by ruptured gas and utility lines, but even something as simple as using candles and propane cooking or heating during emergencies. Earthquake damage to transportation infrastructure can result in firefighters being unable to reach fires quickly or in adequate strength. An earthquake may damage the water distribution system, lowering water pressure at fire hydrants.
But beyond fire damage from earthquakes, the story of the totally destructive home fire in Dana’s neighborhood is a stark reminder that building fires in Seattle are more common than we may think. While the statistics report a decrease in building fires since 2013, we still have lost an average of 345 structures from fires per year, including some heartbreaking fatalities. And, even as fire incidents and casualties may be decreasing, the amount of property loss is increasing, with an average property loss of about $15.5 million per year, according to SHIVAv7.0-Fire.pdf (seattle.gov).
Fire safety essentials
All of this prompts me to review fire-safety essentials with extracts from two valuable resources: www.DisasterReadyWashington.com and https://www.consumerreports.org/magazine/2022/09/.
Modern life has evolved to allow structural fires to travel faster and be more deadly. Consider these factors:
• Open floor plans, which enable fires to run freely;
• Synthetic materials, which burn quicker, release heat faster and create toxic gases;
• Defective lithium-ion batteries, which can overheat, triggering a “thermal runaway” by developing its own oxygen, so flames can’t be put out with water;
• Aging wiring, outlets, electrical and heating systems, which can spark a fire;
• Kitchen fires, usually caused by lack of attention to the stove or improper managing of flames.
The critical tools of home preparedness are smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. Each of the publications cited above offer specific tips about what to look for in their purchase, along with suggestions for carbon monoxide detectors and home sprinkler systems. Both resources also review the essentials of using a fire extinguisher, with the PASS method/mnemonic: Pull the pin, Aim at the base of the fire, Squeeze the lever and Sweep side to side.
You’ll also find they review the importance of developing and rehearsing an escape plan in case of fire.
I think the deepest lesson from Dana’s story for me, as for her, was to get over any hesitation we have about getting to know our neighbors. A recent interview Krista Tippet held with U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy reminds me of why this is so important. “Over thousands of years, we’ve evolved to live in connection with one another … We learned over time that it’s when we built trusted relationships with one another that we all did better, that we lived longer, that we were safer, we were more fulfilled,” Murthy said. “And the thing is, even though our circumstances are so different now, fundamentally our nervous systems haven’t changed … There was a time, perhaps, in parts of society where we were far more connected than we are now, but I suspect we may have taken that for granted and allowed the forces of change and technology to sweep in and then sweep out many of those connections that we had.”
Perhaps this understanding accounts for the introspection evident in Dana’s story about not knowing her neighbors whose house went up in flames. Strikingly, the surgeon general of our country thinks that the lack of social connection is a public health issue that was significantly underway even before the isolation brought on by a global pandemic.
“I think that for every generation there’s a moment where they face a moment of existential change, where there are forces that are visited upon society that threaten our way of life and our way of being, and it’s up to that generation to figure out how to respond,” he said. “To me, this is that moment and we are those people who have to take it upon ourselves to stitch together the social fabric of our country once again because it is the foundation on which we build everything else … And if we do that, then we will be the generation that this time needs, the generation not defined by age, but really defined by spirit, by vision and by values. The generation that years from now, people will look back on and say, that’s when things changed. That’s when we turned the corner and built the world that all of us deserve.”
You can tell that this guy inspires me and is one of the leaders I want to pay attention to. Check out this interview, https://onbeing.org/programs/vivek-murthy-to-be-a-healer, his book, “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World,” and his podcast, “House Calls with Dr. Vivek Murthy.” Check out who your neighbors are, too. Introduce yourself, and find ways to build connections. Join with your neighbors in efforts to prepare for emergencies by emailing email@example.com.
As Dr. Murthy said, “The truth is we are not alone. There are others out there who want what we want. A world that is more connected. A world where we can actually be there for one another.”