Marcia Osborne was downstairs that morning, her husband and their son still asleep, when the smoke alarm in the upstairs hallway of their Old Town home sounded. The alarm prompted the dog to start barking and in the commotion, Marcia’s son woke up and saw that his computer keyboard was smoking. He threw it into the hallway and the rug started to burn, emanating great amounts of smoke. Marcia looked up the stairwell and saw fire.

“When I started seeing those flames coming out of the room, I said, ‘Get out!  Get out! Get out!’” Marcia recalls. “I’m telling you, that took hold so fast and there was so much smoke.”

Marcia says they’re lucky. As she saw the flames and smoke, she thought her old house was “going to go up like a tinderbox.” She credits the smoke alarm — one installed through a partnership between the American Red Cross and the Old Town Housing Authority — for getting all three of them out in time.

We both know, as Marcia does, that smoke alarms save lives. It’s why the American Red Cross, the Office of the State Fire Marshal, local fire departments and other partners are teaming up for Sound the Alarm —  the national signature event of the Red Cross that aims to install 100,000 free smoke alarms across the country over two weeks this spring.

In Maine this year, Sound the Alarm takes place in Auburn, Augusta and Lewiston on April 27. Teams will be visiting homes to install free smoke alarms, help residents create escape plans and provide other tips to increase home fire preparedness.

Home fires claim seven lives every day in the United States. Just this month, we had two fatal home fires, in Anson and Sabattus, where the homes lacked smoke alarms. Nationally, three out of five home fire deaths take place in homes without properly functioning smoke alarms or in home that don’t have any smoke alarms at all.

Working smoke alarms reduce the risk of death by half. But one in 10 adults surveyed by the Red Cross said that the cost of a smoke alarm prevented them from purchasing one. We are talking about nearly 33 million Americans who lack this fundamental safety feature in their homes.

The same survey also reveals that Americans underestimate the likelihood that they will face a home fire. Two out of five people think they have a greater chance of winning the lottery — typically one chance in millions — than dying from exposure to fire or smoke. The reality is that the chances of that are about one in 1,500.

These figures show that there is much work to do, both in increasing public awareness of the real risk that home fires pose and in helping Maine people take concrete steps to improve their safety. Those include having properly placed smoke alarms on each level of a home, inside bedrooms and outside sleeping areas; testing them monthly, having an escape plan and practicing drills.  

Sound the Alarm is part of the Home Fire Campaign, a larger effort by the Red Cross and its partners to prevent home fire deaths. Since its launch in 2014, the Home Fire Campaign has installed more than 1.6 million free smoke alarms — three of those in Marcia’s home — and made more than 670,000 homes safer. We know this work has saved at least 582 lives, including those of Marcia and her family.

The smoke alarm in the upstairs hallway provided Marcia’s family the time to get out safely — even though Marcia’s son didn’t even have the chance to put on shoes before getting out. When a home fire breaks out, you may have as little as two to three minutes to escape. In the past, when furniture and construction materials did not contain so many man-made products, you would have had much more time.

We urge you to take advantage of this free service and make an appointment by calling 874-1192, ext. 113, or visiting You can also use that URL to volunteer that day.

 The alarm you install, whether in a neighbor’s home or your own, could save the next life.


Joe Thomas is the state fire marshal and Patricia Murtagh is CEO of the Maine Region of the American Red Cross. 

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