Fire safety program lets children meet firefighters

Published 11:30 am Thursday, October 9, 2014

On Friday, hundreds of preschool aged children will pack City Pavilion to get their hands on the city’s emergency response equipment and ask questions of the men and women who protect our community

The message shared at the city’s 12th annual Fire Safety Day program, Vicksburg Fire Inspector Leslie Sanders hopes, will resonate long after the excitement of crawling through the cabs of the big red trucks and ambulances is over.

“It’s important to have interaction with them while they’re young,” said Sanders, a 23-year VFD veteran. “So many times teenagers will come up and say they remember me.”

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A firefighter in full turnout gear complete with a mask and air tank — think Darth Vader from Star Wars — can be an imposing figure as they huff and puff though a dark, smoky room to rescue a child, Sanders said.

“With the air packs on, we look like the bad guys to them. We want them running toward us, not away from us,” she said.

During the program that begins at 10 a.m., children will have the opportunity to meet firefighters both in and out of their protective gear, she said. There will also be information available from the State Fire Marshal’s Office, the Red Cross, Warren County Emergency Management Agency, paramedics, police and sheriff’s deputies, all of whom have a role in responding to fires and other emergencies.

A $3,000 donation from Citgo Petroleum and other cash donations by local businesses allowed the fire department to purchase a fire safety themed coloring book and other information for children to take home and share with their parents, Sanders said.

“We put it in their hands to take home so the parents will see it,” Sanders said.

The fire safety program might be Sanders’ last, as she is preparing to retire in mid-2015.

Warren County Emergency Manager John Elfer said Sanders’ dedication to fire safety education over the years is impressive.

“She works really hard on the program, and it’s good to do that for the children,” Elfer said.

After the program, parents should work a fire evacuation plan with their children, Sanders said.

“We need to teach them how to get out of the building,” she said.

Last October, Eddie Rankins was killed in a fire at Azalea Trace Apartments on Fisher Ferry Road just outside the Vicksburg city limits when he ran back into his burning apartment in an attempt to save his family who had already escaped the burning building.

“That’s why you want to practice fire drills at home with your children and have a meeting place,” Sanders said.

Two fatal fires were reported in the city in 2013, and unattended stoves caused both, Sanders said. No fatal fires have been reported in the city this year. One fatal fire has been reported in the county.

“In my career, cooking-related fires and overloaded extension cords have been our No. 1 causes outside of arson fires,” she said.

Every home needs a smoke alarm, Sanders said, and homes with gas appliances need carbon monoxide detectors. VFD has a program to provide low-income residents with free smoke alarms.

“I know I have put over 1,000 smoke alarms in, in my career — personally installed them,” Sanders said.

At a conservative estimate, the thousand smoke alarms averages to almost one installation per week during her tenure at VFD.

One of the biggest problems faced by emergency responders is homeowners not properly marking their house number and children who call 911 but don’t know their address.

“If you can see it from the road, we can see it,” Sanders said.

Fire fighters focus on saving lives first, then property, but life without a home can be difficult.

Through a partnership with the American Red Cross and Vicksburg Fire Department, residents who are displaced by fire are given a free two-night stay in a local hotel.

Insurance doesn’t kick in right away.

Disabled Vietnam veteran Don Saltou’s home at Tucker and Oak Ridge roads was destroyed by fire Jan. 14. After his two nights ran out, Saltou, who uses a wheelchair and needs breathing treatments, shuffled from room to room waiting for his insurance to pay off. By mid-summer, he received a check for his home’s contents.

“The building itself still hasn’t paid off,” he said.

Saltou is now living in a cabin owned by his Veterans Administration caretaker.

Despite the delays, fire insurance was worth every penny, he said.

“Oh yeah, without a doubt. I just wish they would pay off sooner,” Saltou said. “It pays to investigate the companies first before you ever buy because the companies investigate you. If they can find anything in your background, some of these companies will refuse to pay.”

Saltou also encountered a frequent enemy of fire victims — looters. The doors and seats were stolen from his handicap accessible van, and other items that weren’t destroyed in the blaze were stolen from his home.

“If you look on the property now, you’ll see there was some looting that took place. They took everything they wanted,” he said.