Ryan Chiao, Photo Editor

The city of New Haven and the Red Cross will once again partner for the “Sound the Alarm Prepare-a-thon,” an initiative designed to educate New Haveners on fire safety practices. 

Mayor Justin Elicker and representatives from the Red Cross announced the program at a Wednesday afternoon press conference. For the first time since its inception, the program will be virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the past, volunteers have knocked on residents’ doors to teach them how best to set up a fire safety plan. Now, city residents can sign up online to receive virtual education on fire safety or to become volunteer educators themselves. This year’s Prepare-a-thon will run until May 8.

“Handling it virtually, we can reach far more people than we can canvassing in neighborhoods with our teams of volunteers,” Richard Branigan, chief administrative officer of the Red Cross’s Connecticut branch, told the News. “Going door to door has its values because you have a face-to-face conversation and you’re educating people in their own home and helping them come up with a safety plan. But it is time consuming.”

At the press conference, several city officials praised the Red Cross for the work it has done to address fire safety in the city.

Elicker noted that during his tenure, the Red Cross has often provided community support. Recently, the organization has been canvassing New Haven neighborhoods to make sure everyone in the city is vaccinated as part of local and state efforts to boost equity in the vaccination process. Elicker said that the Red Cross’ response efforts are instrumental to helping families feel safe and secure.

“I’ve been mayor for a year and a few months now, and over that time I’ve seen so clearly just how much the American Red Cross impacts our community in many different ways,” Elicker said. “They are oftentimes the first group that is there to help support families that have lost almost everything in a fire. They’re there to support those families both emotionally and with resources to get them through.”

New Haven Fire Chief John Alston noted that more than 93 percent of disasters that the Red Cross tends to are home or home-related fires. The Red Cross defines disasters as “sudden, calamitous events that cause human, material, economic or environmental losses” that exceed a community’s ability to “cope using its own resources.” Alston called a home fire “a disaster to that family, that neighborhood, that community.”

Alston added that, for this reason, the fire prevention methods taught during the Prepare-a-thon are crucial. Many home fires are related to day-to-day tasks like cooking, he said. Others come from improperly handled smoking materials, candles and the activities of unattended children.

“It’s one thing to respond to a fire,” Alston said. “It’s another to not have the fire happen at all. This important program that you’re introducing is critical because we know that more than 85 percent of the fires that we respond to are preventable. The data is there.”

Officials also encouraged New Haveners to sign up as volunteers for the fire safety program and highlighted that it is currently National Volunteer Week.

One Red Cross volunteer, Tracey Scheer, spoke at Wednesday’s press conference. Scheer said that during her time volunteering, she has previously responded to tornadoes and hurricanes. But Scheer said home fires are the most common type of disaster that the Red Cross responds to, and that they are “devastating.”

“My first home fire I went to as a trainee, and I could not believe the devastation that I saw,” Scheer recalled. “I was shocked. There had been a fatality. There were 12 people living in the house. Everything was destroyed. The people who had left the house were lucky if they had grabbed their cell phone or their wallet.”

Scheer echoed officials on the importance of prevention and programs like the Prepare-a-thon. 

Branigan said the Prepare-a-thon is a community initiative at its heart. Neighbors should always be aware of each other’s safety, he added.

“The community knows where the need is,” he said at the press conference. “They know who’s most vulnerable. We always encourage people in times of disaster or preparing for disaster to check in on their neighbors — that senior that lives next door or the family with a single mom, or just their neighbor that they see on the street every day.”

Residents can sign up for the Prepare-a-thon on the Red Cross website.

Owen Tucker-Smith | owen.tucker-smith@yale.edu

Owen Tucker-Smith is a City Editor for the News. He previously covered City Hall. Originally from Williamstown, MA, Owen is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College majoring in Statistics & Data Science.