Joanne Sarlo feels safer in her home and better prepared if she has to escape a fire quickly, thanks to a team of volunteers who installed four new smoke alarms in her South Portland home.

“They changed out two smoke detectors that I already had and added two more,” said Sarlo, a recent retiree who lives on Ocean View Avenue. “They talked to me about fire safety, cooking safety and escape routes, which is something I’ve never really thought about. It’s scary how all of these things you never really think about, you should be doing. You really should have a plan for getting out.”

More than 120 volunteers installed smoke alarms in dozens of homes in Portland, South Portland and Westbrook on Saturday as part of the American Red Cross public safety awareness campaign Sound the Alarm. The Maine event was part of a nationwide push to install 100,000 free smoke alarms in more than 100 cities this spring.

Volunteers from the fire departments fanned out across their communities, installing smoke alarms, replacing batteries in others and quizzing people about their escape plans – and encouraging them to make one if they don’t have one.

House fires kill seven people every day in the U.S., according to American Red Cross statistics. Working smoke alarms reduce that risk by half, says State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas. Shutterstock photo

One of those volunteers, Rich McKeever of Buxton, can testify about the life-saving benefits of smoke alarms and having an emergency escape plan. He had a fire in his home a few years ago, and a smoke alarm woke him and helped him and his family get out of the house safely. “The smoke alarm saved our lives,” he said.

He and his partner installed smoke alarms in a dozen households Saturday, and averaged three new alarms in each house, he said. “It’s rewarding work. The people are very thankful for our efforts,” McKeever said.

House fires kill seven people every day in the United States, according to American Red Cross statistics. Working smoke alarms reduce that risk by half, said State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas, who attended a kickoff event Saturday morning with Patricia Murtaugh, CEO of the American Red Cross of Maine, and South Portland Mayor Linda Cohen.

Thomas estimated that 60 percent of home fire deaths occur in homes where the smoke alarms aren’t functioning or where there are no smoke alarms.

Sarlo was surprised to learn she needed a smoke alarm in each bedroom as well as at least one on every level of her home. Volunteers added smoke alarms in each of her main-floor bedrooms and replaced smoke alarms in her living room and upstairs. The one she had in her basement didn’t need replacing, she said. She was even more surprised to learn the smoke alarms installed on Saturday come with a 10-year battery. “I had no idea they even made those,” she said. “I was shocked.”

Douglas Carr of Westbrook, right, learns about home fire preparedness from Jim Bouchard, executive director of the Central and Mid Coast Chapter of the American Red Cross. The visit was part of the Red Cross Sound the Alarm campaign that aims to prevent home fire deaths through the installation of free smoke alarms and home fire education. Courtesy of American Red Cross

Most people are both overconfident and underprepared when it comes to home fire safety, Thomas said, citing a Red Cross survey that indicates many Americans have a false sense of security about their ability to escape a home fire and haven’t taken measures to make themselves safer. Since 2014, the Red Cross has installed more than 1.2 million free smoke alarms, including more than 12,000 in Maine. The State Fire Marshal’s Office is spending $5,000 on the effort, Thomas said.

He called attention to several recent home fire deaths in Maine as proof of the initiative’s urgency. There have been at least a dozen home fire fatalities in Maine this year. Most recently, a Turner man died in a house fire on Friday afternoon. Between 15 and 25 Mainers die from home fires each year, he added.

Among the volunteers was a team of 16 from Spectrum, who participated as part of the communication company’s Spectrum Housing Assist national philanthropic initiative. “Helping the Red Cross save lives by installing smoke alarms is a cause that is near and dear to employees’ hearts,” said Andrew Russell, Spectrum’s director of communications. “Our employees serve thousands of customers in their homes every day. (Saturday’s) Sound the Alarm event was a great opportunity for our employee volunteers to serve the greater community by helping make our neighbors’ homes safe and healthy.”

Rich McKeever, a volunteer with the American Red Cross, installs free smoke alarms in the Westbrook home of Douglass Carr. McKeever says he learned the importance of having functioning smoke alarms firsthand when a fire broke out in the middle of the night at his home in Buxton a few years ago. Courtesy of the American Red Cross