Several weeks ago, I wrote that I needed additional smoke detectors in my home. I received quite a response from readers, and followed that with conversation with someone from Underwriters Laboratories for an upcoming feature on smoke detectors and alarms. But this week, I heard some sad news that I wanted to share.
Dale Leich, manager of specialty vehicles for ambulance manufacturer Excellance Inc., lost his 77-year-old mother in an overnight fire in her South Carolina home on July 27. According to the coroner, Marlene Leich died from carbon-monoxide poisoning due to smoke inhalation. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but the house had functioning smoke alarms, and Mrs. Leich was obsessive about was unplugging electrical appliances that were not in use, according to her son.
Leich said that on the day before the fire, his mother received a FedEx shipment of promotional items from a company that conducts food demonstrations in grocery stores. One fire official, however, saw the boxes and assumed that Mrs. Leich was a "hoarder" — an opinion that he shared with the press. The Aiken Standard reported that firefighters had to dig “through piles of household items the woman hoarded inside her residence to get to her” when they couldn’t quickly open the front door. (The door was locked but not bolted, according to Leich).
The accusation has offended Leich — himself a former firefighter —and his family. Based on smoke trails and marks on the walls, Leich believed the fire had been smoldering for some time. The open door caused a flashover, and the ceiling collapsed on the victim, who was lying on the couch.
I contacted Div. Chief Michael E. Cox Jr., the public-information officer for the Anne Arundel County (Md.) Fire Department, to ask what he thought of the "hoarding" comment.
“We would never, never report anything like that," he said, citing a recent response by his department to a medical call involving a morbidly obese individual who was a horder. "We have a responsibility to the victim, but we also have a responsibility to the family members and the community.”
Cox also said that firefighters need to be careful where and when they talk about an incident. With the prevalence of video cameras on smartphones, it’s too easy to capture what emergency personnel are saying and post it on the Internet.
Just last week a fire chief said to me: “I’d rather be a smart person with a dumb phone, than a dumb person with a smartphone.”
Perhaps its simply best to remember the old adage, "silence is golden."