smoke and ash stain a column of a house
The exterior of Stanley and Louise Butler's home on Alabama Avenue SE Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The beeping started around 4:30 a.m. on Feb. 25.

Tucked into an upstairs bedroom, Stanley and Louise Butler were fast asleep. Their 11-year-old grandson, Sekai, was sleeping just down the hall. 

When those three exaggerated beeps echoed throughout the house, a high-pitched cacophony was able to rouse the deepest of sleepers.

“I could hear my husband saying, ‘There’s smoke, there’s smoke, I can’t breathe,’” says retired teacher Louise Butler, 67. “We all met in the hallway and we linked arms and we came down the stairs. The smoke was just billowing up at us. Once we got to the door, we were able to unlock it and go out, but it was frightening. It was horrific.”

Following the route Sekai had mapped for his Boy Scout first responder badge, the three escaped the house, led by retired Reverend Stanley Butler, 64. The fire started with a space heater in the sunroom of their brick colonial on Alabama Avenue SE, but it didn’t stay there. Thick smoke quickly spread to every room in the house. 

The tinkling of broken glass joined the chorus of beeps as flames shot through heat-shattered windows. Louise thinks the smoke alarm is the only reason they made it out the door at all.

“Had that smoke alarm not alerted us, that fire would have been at the door. It would have been right where we would have gone out,” she says. “The fire was coming fast and furious.”

By the time fire crews arrived, flames were pouring out of third-story windows. Firefighters stood on the sunroom roof, shooting water into the floors above. Officials said three firefighters were later treated for minor injuries. 

The fire destroyed the Butlers’ home, leaving them with little more than what they were wearing. 

“We are just so blessed that we were able to get out of there with the clothes on our backs,” Louise says.

Nine District residents have died in house fires this year, including an 8-year-old boy and an elderly couple. Despite a decade-old program to install and update smoke alarms for free, only five of the eight homes where these fires occurred had smoke alarms, according to data from D.C. Fire and EMS. 

“Smoke detectors are critical and they definitely save lives,” says D.C. Fire Marshal and Deputy Chief Mitch Kannry, who leads fire prevention efforts for the District. “We do know without a smoke detector, the chances of survival are impacted because you don’t have that early warning should something minor start.”

A February 2021 study from the National Fire Protection Association examined home fire deaths from 2014 to 2018 and found that nearly three out of five were caused by fires in homes without functioning smoke alarms. The study suggests that a person is 55 percent less likely to die in a house fire if that house has a working smoke detector.

The D.C. Fire Prevention Team is currently targeting this problem with the A’sia Sutton Smoke Alarm Giveaway and Installation Program. Named for 5-year-old A’sia Sutton, who died in a 2007 fire in a home without working smoke alarms, the program sends fire department personnel into homes to install and service smoke alarms for free. 

According to data from FEMS, the department has installed almost 700 detectors so far this fiscal year, which ends in September. That is on par with the 863 installed in 2019 and well above the 345 installed in 2018. 

For the 2020 fiscal year, which includes the early months of the pandemic and a brief pause in the program, the department only installed 148 total smoke alarms. 

But FEMS’ stock of alarms still exceeds the number of requests and completed installations. Pepco donates around 1,000 smoke alarms annually to area fire departments, according to company spokesperson Jamie Caswell. Caswell says FEMS has received 16,750 devices over the past 16 years.

Around 2,000 of those detectors are sitting in a storage closet, Kannry says.

“I would love for our inventory to be much lower and to get these detectors where they can be used the most,” Kannry says. “We do installations based on request primarily, so if we don’t have the requests coming in, we can’t do those installations.”

The National Fire Protection Association recommends replacing smoke alarms every 10 years and replacing batteries every six months. Some newer models have built-in batteries that last 10 years.

Kannry says the devices FEMS installs sometimes sit in storage for a year or two before landing in a home.

“Even if a detector is two years old, if we can still get eight years out of that, that’s still a large coverage area,” Kannry says. “And if it expires in eight years, we’d be more than happy to come out in eight years and put another one in.” 

Homeowners can request free smoke alarms by calling 311 in the District or contacting the fire prevention division directly. Smoke detectors are also installed during broader community outreach events, which Kannry credits with boosting the department’s 2021 installation numbers. Last year, the prevention team began targeting different neighborhoods each month to install smoke alarms and preach fire safety.

They also intensify outreach in any neighborhood where a fatal fire has occurred.

Of the eight homes where fatal fires occurred this year, investigators have confirmed two had working smoke alarms. While three homes had alarms installed, investigators haven’t determined if they were functioning at the time of the fires. Three homes had no detectors at all. 

A task force that includes representatives from FEMS, the Metropolitan Police Department, and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms investigate every fatal fire in the city. Kannry says that electrical engineers from ATF are still evaluating the smoke alarms present during the May 24 fire that killed 8-year-old Supreme Arant to determine if they were working properly at the time. 

Arant was staying with relatives when the fire broke out. Kannry says he was rescued but died in the hospital several days later. Three adults and two other children who were home at the time escaped. 

“When we’re doing our outreach, we do think it makes more impact knowing that it was a child that died,” Kannry says. “All fire deaths are a tragedy, and we don’t want anyone to die in a fire but especially when it’s a child impacted, everybody feels it a little bit more.”

Inspectors installed 23 new smoke alarms while canvassing in Deanwood, around Upsal Street SE, where the fire that killed Arant occurred. 

After George Washington University professor Paul Tschudi, 73, and his dog died in a house fire on April 7, the team canvassed in Brookland and installed nine smoke alarms in homes. Inspectors did not find any working smoke alarms in Tschudi’s home, according to FEMS data. 

Kannry still believes the program is working, despite the recent spate of deaths in homes without alarms. 

“I think that we’ve been able to install a lot of smoke detectors in homes that otherwise wouldn’t be able to have them,” Kannry says. “If just one of those smoke detectors is able to prevent a small fire from escalating or prevent a fire death, I think that the whole program was worthwhile.” 

Although the free smoke alarm program targeted low-income and elderly homeowners early on, Kannry says any homeowner in the District can request an installation and a fire safety inspection. 

Landlords are responsible for keeping up to code with working smoke detectors in rental units. While FEMS won’t install smoke alarms in rentals, he says inspectors will evaluate any rental apartment for free and ensure the landlord updates anything unsafe.

Since 2000, the District has averaged nearly 10 fire deaths each year. The city has seen a decade of below-average totals beginning in 2010, but fatalities have been trending upward again in the past three years. Kannry didn’t have an explanation for the uptick but says that 2021 is on track to see above-average numbers. 

All of those who died in fires without smoke alarms in 2021 were above the age of 60. 

People over 60 have accounted for half of all fire deaths in the District since 2001. People over 70 have accounted for a third and 10 percent have been children under 12, according to FEMS data. 

Kannry says children and older adults are most at risk of dying in a fire, often because of mobility issues. FEMS spokesperson Vito Maggiolo added that the elderly are at a higher risk of having defunct smoke alarms, too. 

“In some of these fires, it’s not just a matter of smoke detectors not being present, but often they are present but nonfunctioning,” Maggiolo says. “For the elderly, the smoke detector may have been put on the wall 10 years ago and it’s no longer operative, or it may have gone off while cooking dinner and they took the battery out and they didn’t think to put it back.”

Rosa, 87, and Lester Wilson, 91, didn’t have any smoke alarms installed in their Petworth home, according to fire investigators. In the early hours of Jan. 21, a massive fire overtook their two-story rowhouse on 8th Street NW. Both were rushed to the hospital in critical condition but died later that morning.

“[Rosa] was a very beautiful spirit; she always helped people and encouraged people in the community,” says Shrikant Bhatnagar, who knew the Wilsons from the Salvation Army where they worshipped. “This kind of thing doesn’t come in our mind at all, especially smoke alarms, in the D.C. area because we assume everybody, especially in D.C., has one.”

Bhatnagar and his wife, Indrani, are corps officers for the Sherman Avenue NW location. He says the community was in shock when they heard about the fire. But he hasn’t heard a discussion about the lack of smoke detectors happening in the broader community.

When asked if the city should be doing more to reach residents like the Wilsons with their fire safety education, Indrani says she thinks it starts with the homeowner and the community. 

“As a community, we need to take care of each other more, especially when we have so many of these situations already,” she says. “We need to talk to each other to find out that our home is safe, our smoke detector is working properly, even if we have one that is working.”

FEMS spokesperson Maggiolo also hopes that the community will step up.

“If you’re a friend or a neighbor or a relative of an elderly person … take the time to visit,” he says. “Take the time to see if they have smoke detectors. Take the time to test the smoke detectors, and if they’re needed, let us know and we’ll take care of it for you.”

Louise Butler is surprised that anyone wouldn’t have smoke detectors.

“I just can’t imagine,” she says. “We are here today because the smoke detector saved our lives and it’s just unbelievable that people don’t take that as extremely important.” 

The fire is a constant presence in the back of her mind, returning to her in little moments. She was jumpy for a while. She kept thinking she was constantly smelling smoke when there wasn’t any. A neighbor set up a GoFundMe to crowdfund the family’s recovery process. Once they were finally let back in to assess the damage, she saw how close it had been. 

Smoke damage saturated the walls and window frames were charred reminders of what used to be.

“It was more terrifying when we went back in [the house] and just looked at how fast that fire had burned the entryway, the way we came out,” she says. “Had it not been for the smoke alarm, it would have been another way. ... We lost everything in the fire. There was nothing salvageable, that tells you how fast it spread.”

Louise knows that her perspective has changed since the fire. Now she sees smoke alarms more as necessary utilities such as water or electricity than regular household items.