The story related below is a true story that happened to a member of staff within Devon & Somerset Fire & Rescue Service. The incident took place in December 2012 in his mum’s three bedroom bungalow that had no smoke alarms, she was also uninsured.

Ben explained: “My family had just gone to bed, when my brother Andy was woken by the family dog Vinnie, scratching at his bedroom door. His first reaction was to tell him to go away, but then he noticed his bedroom was filling with smoke. Andy quickly got everyone safely outside.

“The fire had taken hold in mum’s spare room where she kept a ten year old fridge freezer with mostly dog food in. The fire quickly took hold and soon became very serious causing extensive damage to mum’s bungalow. 

“The spare room was totally burned out, but it was the damage done by the smoke that was the worst. The damage was really shocking, as the bungalow has had to be gutted - right back to the plaster walls, the electric all rewired and a new boiler fitted. 

“Mum had no smoke alarms in the house, she is the sort of person that would buy a smoke alarm but never get around to fitting it – I’ll do it one day. If the dog had not woken my brother it would have been a very different story.

“An added problem was that mum was not insured. This has had a big impact as obviously after a fire when you have insurance it all gets sorted, but if you’re not you’re really left out on your own. Since the fire it’s been an uphill battle for her.”

Thinking about it retrospectively Ben said: “I’ve always been in rented accommodation with an integrated smoke alarm, so never thought about fire safety in that way, as once a year someone would come around and checks everything. Now I have my own home and I’m in charge, we make sure we check our smoke alarms on a regular basis. It’s so important to do.” 

My advice would now be:
Check your fridges and freezers, especially if they are old, that they haven’t been recalled. The fire damage to mums fridge freezer was so bad that I couldn’t even tell what make it was! 

Recently a friend had a small dishwasher fire, and that was a recalled model. Luckily that was very small. So check all your electrical goods. 

Make sure you are insured, it’s been devastating for all the family that nothing has been able to be fixed quickly.

Definitely make sure you have smoke alarms fitted and remember to test them as they could save your life. When you visit family or friends it’s very simple to take a moment to check or ask if their smoke alarms are working. It’s not a good enough excuse that it goes off when you are cooking. 

After the fire from talking to friends I found out that 20% had smoke alarms that weren’t working due to having no batteries in. 

“My family were lucky, if the dog had not woken my brother up it would have been a different story. Mum had lots of cats and they all died. A smoke alarm could save your life.” 

Paul Bray, Community Safety Protection Manager for Devon & Somerset Fire & Rescue Service who attended the fire as Supervisory flexi-duty officer as well as carrying out the fire investigation. 

Paul felt that by relating Ben’s mums story it would be an ideal opportunity to remind all fire colleagues that a fire can happen to anyone. Also by applying the principles of ‘six degrees of separation’ (six degrees of separation is the theory that everyone and everything is six or fewer steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person in the world). By using this principle if everyone were to check the smoke alarm of six family or friends we could potentially prevent a fire happening in the first place by the amount of people reached.

“I regularly attend dwelling fires where smoke alarms don’t work or are not fitted and there is no insurance. I always encourage the occupants to learn from the incident and tell their friends, but I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I have very limited influence over what happens next," Paul added.

“While investigating this fire I was surprised, shocked and concerned that this fire had happened to someone within our organisational family. I thought everyone in our organisation would know the importance of smoke detectors and would ensure that their family and friends would be suitably informed and protected. My experience at Ben’s Mum’s house has caused me think differently.”

Six degrees of separation
Paul concluded: "So I encourage you to check your immediate family and friends and ask them to check on their family and friends. Then soon the whole world would know - a grand notion I know but once this chain reaction is started the skies the limit!

“But don’t stop at checking – if they haven’t got a smoke alarm get one for them - fit it if you have to.

“Finally, I would like to thank Ben and his family for letting us tell his story. Without his wiliness to share this painful experience, we would not be in a position to make a difference. I should also add he has played down the role of Vinnie the dog, in my opinion - he saved his family’s lives.”