ST. LOUIS, MO (KTVI) - I spent Thursday afternoon in a burning room in North St. Louis to see how smoke alarms can help a family survive a fire. I put on full firefighter gear, including a 35-pound oxygen tank, a sealed mask, helmet and thick jacket and pants.
"We are going to do a little smoke demonstration," said St. Louis Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson to a group of news reporters and photographers at the department headquarters and training center. "We're going to provide some instructions on what to do and what not to do."
Once inside a dark room, firefighters lit straw on fire with all the journalists inside. We saw what Chief Jenkerson previewed just minutes before. "We're going to show you how the smoke builds up, hits the ceiling, and comes across. When it gets hot enough, smoke actually explodes and catches on fire."
I watched the fire 'fold over' my head and felt the heat through my thick jacket.
This was all before the annual daylight saving time smoke detector blitz, when firefighters check and replace batteries and smoke alarms. The department was the first to get a FEMA grant to purchase new devices to save even more lives.
"It is for the hearing impaired,' the Chief explained. 'It's actually a rumbler, if you will, that fits under the pillow. It's attached to an alarm clock."
Firefighters said once that alarm sounds, residents have two minutes to leave. But the real flames with the real smoke left out one real element to most housefires. The fuel in the department training center was wood.
"In your own home, just look around,' said Jenkerson. 'Everything in there is synthetic. It burns ten times hotter and ten times faster. You don't have much time to get out of a room"
I heard the alarms. I felt the heat. But even with a protective visor, I could barely see.
"Even with flashlights, it's difficult to see inside a lot of these buildings because of the way synthetics burn,' explained fire Captain Greg Favre. 'You often can't see your hand in front of your face."
We all ended the exercise, safely. The most damage we suffered was a lingering smell of smoke. But, the firefighters kept working and unloading a truck full of smoke detectors ready for the weekend blitz.
"If we can pull up on the scene and you say I know my family is out and they are all right here, that gives us 100% focus on stopping the spread of fire and eliminating the damage to the house,' said Favre.
St. Louis Firefighters will check smoke alarms and replace the batteries or device for free. Call (314) 533-3406.
For those living in the surrounding counties, call your local fire department.