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Firefighters kick off safety month with open house

LAWRENCEVILLE - Kathy Cannon is eating dinner with her family in a crowded hotel room. Children laugh, plates shuffle. But this is no vacation, no reprieve from anything. A house fire left the Dacula family homeless about six hours ago.

For tonight, at least, the hotel is home.

"I'm really sort of numb," said Cannon, whose children and grandchildren were indoors when flames quickly spread from a laundry room. "It's like something out of a movie. Just devastating all around."

Cannon's family was directed here by the Red Cross. Their livelihood is on a night-by-night basis for the timebeing, but they feel lucky. They escaped the blaze physically unscathed, though emotionally there will be scarring.

Smoke detectors alerted the home's occupants, Cannon said, and may have prevented tragedy.

"I'm assuming it could be a lot worse," she said, unconvincingly.

Other families in Gwinnett haven't been so fortunate.

Since 2005, nine Gwinnett residents have died in residential fires. That figure might appear slight considering, in the same timespan, more than 3,300 residential fires were reported. But to firefighter veterans like Lt. Thomas Rutledge, even one death is too many.

Throughout October each year, the Gwinnett County Fire Department expands the national Fire Prevention Week into an entire month of trumpeting all things safety.

Rutledge, a spokesman for the Fire Department and 20-year veteran, said Gwinnett's Fire Prevention Month has been around for decades.

Firefighters will kick off the annual, educational tour of schools, day cares and business with an open house Sunday at Fire Station No. 20 in Lawrenceville.

"We go a step further here in Gwinnett," Rutledge said. "Fire safety is not just for little children - it's also for adults. It's more than the stop-drop-and-roll mentality."

But why October?

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was sparked on Oct. 8 - leading to 250 deaths and 100,000 homeless - and the local and national initiatives commemorate that storied disaster, Rutledge said.

Practice makes perfect

Nationally, the number of people killed in residential fires each year is about the population of Duluth, or 25,100.

Officials say a simple escape route can help families avoid fire fatalities. This year's safety theme, which was adopted locally, is "Practice Your Escape Plan." Solid planning could be a matter of life and death, Rutledge said.

"These are facts that most Americans don't know," he said. "It's costing them their lives."

Rutledge has condensed his encyclopedic knowledge of fire survival into four main points. His eye-opening advice is listed as follows:

n Fire is Dark. "People have the misconception that fire gives off light. Within that room, it will be pitch-black just from the smoke alone."

n Fire is Hot. "At 150 degrees, our lungs will vaporize and we die instantly. That's why it's important people don't go hunting a fire that's under way. One breath of superheated air can kill you." (Air at ceiling-level can be 900 degrees hotter than that near the floor.)

n Smoke and Gas are a Fire's Worst Killers: "It's not the heat that kills you, not the flames, it's usually the smoke that spreads through a home ahead of the fire. Breathing that smoke is like being sedated. A lot of fire victims are found not burned but with a thin layer of soot across their face."

n Time is Against You: "It only takes about five minutes for a home to be totally engulfed or filled with enough smoke, heat and toxic gas that no one inside can survive. People left inside a burning home after three minutes are usually dead."

Rutledge urges families to keep working smoke detectors on every level of a home and in each bedroom. Gwinnett's more than 700 firefighters rely on ordinary citizens as their first line of defense.

"Fire doesn't discriminate against people. Fire doesn't discriminate against time. Fire doesn't discriminate against place," Rutledge said. "You never know when that fire's going to come."

' What: Fire Prevention Week Open House

' When: 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday

' Where: Gwinnett Fire Station No. 20, 1801 Cruse Road, Lawrenceville

' Cost: Free

Chance to see how firefighters live and work. Includes tour of the station, Youth Fire Safety Training Facility, display of equipment and education materials.