Investing in fire safety education for seniors statewide


Gathered at the State House to educate members of the legislature about Senior SAFE are (l to r) Lt. Israel Gonzalez, Lynn; Chief Jim McDonald, Lynn; Chief Anthony Stowers, Maynard; state Rep. Kate Hogan, D-Stow; Elder Affairs Secretary Alice Bonner; Capt. Sean Kiley, Maynard; State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan; and Chief Dennis Condon, Needham.

By Ed Karvoski Jr.

State and local officials gathered last year at the Hudson Senior Center to officially launch Senior SAFE, a grant program to local fire departments statewide that supports fire safety education for older adults. The program is modeled after the school-based Student Awareness of Fire Education (SAFE) for children under 18, which reduced the fire-related deaths within that age group by about 70 percent since its inception 20 years ago.

At the official Senior SAFE launch, State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan reported that 42 percent of fire-related casualties in Massachusetts in 2013 were people over age 65. In 2014, the percentage of the state’s fire casualties within that age demographic dropped to 28 percent, he noted.

“So far in 2015, 13 people over age 65 have died in fires,” Coan said. “We’re very close to the number of fatalities that occurred in 2014, so we’re still experiencing serious fire issues with our older population.”

Senior SAFE is funded by fees collected through the Fire Standard Compliant Cigarette program, which enforces the law setting ignition resistance standards for all cigarettes sold in Massachusetts. When Coan realized that some funds from the fees might become available, he began collaborating with state Rep. Kate Hogan, D-Stow, who serves as chair of the Elder Caucus.

“I met with Rep. Hogan because I know she has great interest in senior issues,” Coan explained. “I asked her to work with me and put together a piece of legislation. It’s because of her leadership in passing the legislation that allowed us to use these funds and we were able to create Senior SAFE.”

Hogan expressed her personal concern for wanting the Senior SAFE program to get passed and into the fiscal year (FY) 2014 budget.

“For me, the program came out of deaths in my district’s senior community from fire, smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning,” she shared. “When you’re a state representative and that happens in your own district, it makes you lose sleep. This program will be critical in saving lives.”

In FY 2014, the Senior SAFE program provided grants to 205 fire departments statewide to work with councils on aging and other agencies to offer fire safety education. In FY 2015, grants were awarded to 208 fire departments. Funds totaled $600,000 each year. Among the suggested topics for grant recipients to consider are the installation of smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, testing and replacing batteries in these devices, the installation and checking of house numbers, high-end heat limiting devices on stoves, in-hood stove fire extinguishers and nightlights.

Coan’s firsthand work experience also compels him to advocate fire safety education for seniors. He has served as the state fire marshal for over 20 years and head of the Department of Fire Services since it was created in the 1990s.

“Statistically, it is our older adults that are affected by the horror of fires,” he said. “I’ve made it a practice throughout my career to respond to the vast majority of fires that cause fatalities in the commonwealth – and they’re heart wrenching. I’ve responded to dozens of fatal fires where elderly have perished. It’s an awful way to end a life.”

Many of these fires are preventable, Coan noted.

“I’ve been to these fires where there are no smoke alarms,” he said. “Or fires where I look up at the ceiling and there is a smoke alarm, but just two wires because the batteries haven’t been maintained. Many of our seniors have been living in their homes from before the time of our smoke detector legislations that came in the 1970s and early ‘80s. It’s about people understanding and believing the importance of the smoke detector and the carbon monoxide alarms. It’s about education.”

Coan is hopeful that Senior SAFE will prove to be as successful as the school-based SAFE has been for children under age 18.

“Knowing that the older population is most at risk, we felt collectively that the model of SAFE would work for Senior SAFE,” he said. “As opposed to the interaction of firefighters at schools, it’s now firefighters at councils on aging, senior housing, any venues where seniors congregate and can be part of our educational process.”