Behind the Scenes of a Smoke Alarm Blitz

Photos and story by Julie Chapman

The early morning sun began to warm the air on this cold Saturday in January. Groups of Goose Creek Rural Fire department (GCRFD) personnel, seamen from the Navy Nuclear Power Training Command (NNPTC), and volunteers from Red Cross canvased the area of Beverly Hills, checking smoke detectors, changing batteries and placing detectors where there were none. Teams of four were created to include two installers, a recorder, and an educator.  Fire prevention was an important aspect of the education; encouraging the residents to develop an escape plan and a meeting place once they got out of the house. The recorder gathered information that could be vital for the fire department if they had to respond to a fire at the residence.

In one group, there were two fire personnel, Matt Stephen, an experienced part-timer with the GCRFD who also worked for the city of North Charleston and the other, Kendall Whitfield, an enthusiastic recent high school graduate from Dallas, Texas, who had worked for Goose Creek and North Charleston fire departments for over a year.  The two Red Cross volunteers were John McCombs, a seasoned volunteer, who had organized the event, and a College of Charleston junior, Maggie Panetta, who is interning with the Red Cross for a semester.

Knocking on doors, sometimes this group of four was greeted with enthusiasm and gratefulness, other times, the door remained closed with no answer. The residents had been notified the day before with a door hanger of the upcoming Smoke Detector Blitz. When the door opened, this group of two men and two women, would check present detectors and recommend if additional were needed. Residents who expressed concern about the cost were assured that the service was free, funded by the Red Cross’s National Drive to place detectors in homes throughout the United States. The fire department also supplied smoke detectors. 

For the houses where the residents did not answer, a door hanger with the fire department’s phone number was hung so they could follow up later with a request to place a smoke detector.

One former military veteran, who had repeatedly, over a three year period, asked his landlord to place detectors in the house, was grateful when the team placed two detectors, one in the hallway leading to the bedrooms and the other in one of the bedrooms. The other bedrooms were occupied so the GCRFD’s phone number was given in case they wanted to add additional detectors later.

Another home had only one detector, so several more were added. The room above the garage, which sometimes housed a younger family member was also recommended for a detector placement. The resident asked about carbon monoxide detectors. A fire personal determined that the house did not have any gas appliances so this type of detector was not needed. The resident was happy to understand what the carbon monoxide detector was testing for and that her house did not need one.

Maggie, the C of C intern remarked as they left one of the homes, “I need to call my mother and make sure my grandmother’s house has smoke alarms.” Thinking about escape routes and meeting places, each of the group made a mental note to review their home later. Kendall and Maggie bonded during their time together, exchanging phone numbers at the end. A special friendship was beginning.

Many streets over, Navy seamen with their crew cuts and Navy sweatshirts, were volunteering for the first time. Their commander had recommended this event and 14 men came out to help the community.

When everyone who had participated gathered back at the Goose Creek Rural Fire Department, two of the seamen showed detectors they had discovered in one house. One of the detectors had a bell that rang when the temperature reached over 170 degrees. It was not a smoke detector, but a fire detector and had been popular in the 50s. The resident gladly exchanged the detectors for the modern, more reliable ones that were made to last ten years without needing to change batteries. Checking the detectors monthly by pushing the button to make sure it was still operating was the only recommendation.


On January 16, 2016, 314 doors were knocked on, 104 smoke alarms were installed, and 41 batteries were replaced. As cars left the fire station, these volunteers felt camaraderie and goodwill as they reflected on the lives they had touched that day, and how their own lives had been expanded. It had been a good day.

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