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New Orleans Uses Census Data to Hand Out Free Smoke Alarms Where Needed

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Hoses, ladders, flame-resistant suits and axes are all well-known firefighting gear. But one fire department is using a less visible tool to fight fires before they start: census data.

The New Orleans Fire Department is using statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau to identify homes without smoke detectors — and distribute free ones to those most at risk.

“The greatest single factor in saving lives is having a working smoke detector in your home.”

— Timothy McConnell, New Orleans Fire Superintendent

This week is Fire Prevention Week, an opportunity for the nation to focus on how to prevent and respond to fires.

“The greatest single factor in saving lives is having a working smoke detector in your home,” according to New Orleans Fire Superintendent Timothy McConnell.

Using publicly available data from the Census Bureau, the New Orleans Fire Department and the city’s Office of Performance and Accountability developed a smoke detector outreach program designed to save lives.

Using Data to Fight Fires

Combining data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, American Housing Survey and the 2010 Census with its own administrative data, the city developed a statistical model. It determines areas with homes that are least likely to have a working smoke alarm and most at risk of potentially fatal fires.

The American Community Survey is an ongoing, annual household survey that provides statistics on numerous social, economic, housing and demographic characteristics, including such things as poverty, income and employment. Socio-economic factors such as overcrowded homes, older structures, poverty, unsupervised children, careless smoking and alcohol and drug abuse all increase fire risk, according to an analysis by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

FEMA’s report identified vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and children under the age of 5.

New Orleans ranked every zone in the city based on the need for smoke alarms.

According to Oliver Wise, former director of New Orleans’ Office of Performance and Accountability, the city was able to identify areas most in need, down to the Census block group level.

Using ACS data, the OPA discovered that one-third more homes than previously estimated lacked smoke alarms.  

It also found that almost 19% of homes without this vital warning system were in structures built before 1950 and where residents had lived since at least 2000 and had household incomes below twice the federal poverty level.

Based on its findings, the Office of Performance and Accountability started the Targeted Smoke Alarm Outreach Program, which focuses on firefighters going door-to-door to give away and install smoke detectors.

“The American Community Survey is tremendously valuable to us and was vital to this project,” Wise said.

Boots on the Ground

The New Orleans Fire Department continues to serve its parish with the Free Smoke Alarm Installation Program, which installs two smoke alarms in each home they find without one. They also check and replace batteries in smoke detectors for elderly and physically challenged residents unable to do so themselves.

Additionally, smoke alarm systems specifically designed for the deaf and hearing impaired are available. These systems consist of strobe lights and vibrating pillows or bed shakers provided free of charge.

“If you can prevent one person from losing their life,” said New Orleans’ Fire Superintendent McConnell. “it makes this program worthwhile.”


Earlene K.P. Dowell is a program analyst in the Census Bureau’s Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics Program.



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