The Washington Post
Deaths rise as people try to put out fires
Pr. George’s firefighters lead ‘Safety Saturdays’ to educate residents
On a snowy, Saturday morning in February, teams of Prince George’s County firefighters and paramedics gathered fire safety handouts and smoke alarms and spread out across the county with a mission in mind: to prevent future fire fatalities.
Residential fire fatalities in Prince George’s County are double what they were last year, with four residential fire fatalities in all of 2022 and eight so far this year, according to the fire/ems department. In many of the recent cases, the department says, people have tried to put the fires out themselves before calling 911.
Deputy Fire Chief Tony Hughes, in charge of emergency operations, said the number of fire fatalities in the county this year is “significantly higher” compared with previous years.
“We just want to get out in the communities, talk about fire safety to the residents,” Hughes said as he directed crews knocking on doors in Lanham.
The department hopes an education campaign coined “Safety Saturdays” will help. Fire crews in the coming weeks will knock on doors to conduct fire safety checks by helping residents develop a fire escape plan and ensuring homes have a working smoke alarm, Hughes said.
There were double fatalities in two of the fatal fires this year, one in the Temple Hills area and the other in the Lanham area. One of those cases includes Joyce Brown, 83, and Eunice Chisley, 79, who died in late January at a single-family home that was converted into an assisted-living facility.
Alan Doubleday, a spokesman for the county fire department, said that a caregiver inside the home lit a candle, which accidentally spread to a tablecloth. That caregiver and another caregiver attempted to extinguish the fire themselves but it continued to spread, Doubleday said.
“It definitely sounds like this campaign could do a lot of good in the county,” Sherice BrownFranklin, the granddaughter of Joyce Brown said of Safety Saturdays. “What do you do, if you do knock a candle over?”
Public records list the property owner as Artese Charles. When reached Wednesday, Charles declined to answer questions.
In a two-story split foyer home fire in Lanham in February, a cigarette lighter that accidentally lit bedding materials started a blaze, Doubleday said. Two men in the home tried to extinguish it, but the fire got out of control. One of the men had called the other to help, and he came downstairs to assist. The man who helped try to extinguish the fire died along with his wife, Doubleday said. The other man was able to escape.
The couple was Aurelia Cannon-bey, 66, known by family as “Rita,” and James Cannon-bey, 73, according to family. Aurelia Cannon-bey’s niece Kenyatta “Ronnetta” Dixon, said the couple were her daughter’s godparents and helped raise her.
Now living in Texas, Dixon said she stayed with her aunt and uncle in Prince George’s for several years and was surrounded by their selfless love. Aurelia Cannon-bey, originally from D.C., was a retired government worker who had a degree in special education and was working in child care after retiring. James Cannon-bey, who was also retired, was working as a phlebotomist, Dixon said.
“They were just genuinely nice, caring, loving people,” Dixon said. The Cannon-beys were dedicated to church and were “world travelers,” Dixon said.
Dixon said her father, a disabled veteran in his 70s, was the surviving victim in the fire and lived at the home with her aunt and uncle.
“It’s taken a big toll on him because that was the person he leaned on,” Dixon said of her aunt Aurelia Cannon-bey. “He’s devastated from all of this.”
“Never try to go back to get anything, just leave out of the house. Try to get out as quick as you can. You think you have time, but fires, they are quick and they are very devastating,” Dixon, who has also been in a house fire, added.
Across Maryland, fire fatality numbers were high in February, Maryland State Fire Marshal Brian Geraci said in an interview last week. Since Feb. 17, there have been at least 11 fire fatalities.
“It saddens me that we’re having these fires in the community and in the state. For me, these are failures,” Geraci said. “We either failed to get the information to these people, or they failed to receive it.”
Fire dynamics have changed over the years, Geraci said. Furnishings are more flammable, fires are burning hotter and faster and putting off more smoke, reducing the time to get out of a house on fire. People often try to go back inside to save a loved one, a pet or property, and “they don’t come back out,” he said.
Geraci said residents should always have working smoke alarms, have an escape plan and close bedroom doors at night. In the event of a fire, they should close doors on their way out, get out and stay out, and call 911. Getting the fire prevention message out to communities is important “because we really need to get ahead of it,” Geraci said.
“People think fire is not going to happen to them,” Geraci said.
“It’s about changing people’s behavior, and that’s a very difficult thing to do,” he added.
In Prince George’s, the department canvassed three regions of the county on Feb. 25 — Lanham, Beltsville and Clinton — the areas that had the most recent fire fatalities, Hughes said. They knocked on doors and passed out fire safety tip sheets that said, “GET OUT, STAY OUT AND CALL 9-1-1.”
Prince George’s County Fire and EMS visited more than 150 homes, contacted 82 residents and installed 27 smoke alarms on Feb. 25, according to the department.
If someone wasn’t home, they left fliers on the doors that said, “Sorry we missed you!” and gave information on how to contact the department for an alarm. The canvasses will continue every Saturday through the end of March, according to the department. Areas are chosen based on where recent structure fires have occurred in the county.