The Saving Power of Smoke Alarms

Story by Harriet Vanderbilt/Red Cross Cascades Region

Vivian Bates likely was unaware that people often have just two minutes to escape a home fire. 

Fire shoots from the window of Vivian Bates’ home on Sept. 13, 2021 in Scappoose, Oregon after she and another occupant were able to escape the home. Scappoose Fire District crews arrived to put out the flames but the home was determined to be a total loss. American Red Cross volunteers had previously visited the home and installed free smoke alarms as part of the Red Cross Home Fire Campaign. Photo by Scappoose Fire District.

She probably had no idea that fire claims seven lives every day, or that home fires are the nation’s most frequent disaster.

But Vivian Bates knows very well that the smoke alarms installed by Red Cross volunteers as part of the Home Fire Campaign, saved her life.

The Red Cross Home Fire Campaign and related Sound the Alarm events have helped make more than 975,000 homes across the country safer, including 12,070 here in the Cascades region. Since its beginning in 2014, nearly 1,300 lives, like Vivian Bates, have been saved.

In July of 2017, a team of Cascades Region volunteers visited Vivian’s home during the Sound the Alarm canvassing event in Scappoose, Oregon. The team gave Vivian a safety checklist, along with earthquake information and hazard education. They also installed three new smoke alarms that would soon save her life.

While Vivian was frying chicken in the kitchen, a contractor was working on her cabinetry in an adjacent room. Vivian turned away from the stovetop to do something else. As she turned back to the stove, she saw the pan ignite into flames. 

“I placed a lid on the pan, attempting to extinguish the flame,” she said.

Unfortunately, the lid was larger than the pan and flames rose from under and around the lid. There was a very small, old fire extinguisher the size of a shaving cream can. It was mounted on a nearby wall. Vivian grabbed it but it failed after one spirt.

The activated alarms alerted the contractor to the kitchen. While Vivian called 911, he made an attempt to grab the handles of the pan but flames were shooting up around the cover. Flames engulfed his arm.  The contractor instructed Vivian to get out, as flames increased and spread to the ceiling. They both escaped safely although the contractor suffered severe burns.

Thanks to the help of Red Cross Disaster Action Team (DAT) volunteers, Vivian is currently living in temporary housing while her new home is being constructed. 

Vivian is very grateful to the Red Cross.  She believes that “The working smoke alarms prevented a more serious, perhaps deadly outcome.”

In designing her new home, Vivian has taken the knowledge Red Cross gave her to plan escape routes with two ways out of each room, along with easy to open windows. She has also included numerous fire extinguishers.

During Sound the Alarm events in May, Cascades Region Red Cross plans to install at least 500 free smoke alarms in at-risk neighborhoods as part of a 50,000 nationwide goal. Volunteers and community partners will meet with people like Vivian Bates to help them create a two-minute fire escape plan. They will also offer safety information on home fires and other local disaster risks.

Learn more about how you can help us Sound the Alarm this May at