PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The Red Cross Eastern Pennsylvania Region responds to disasters in 17 counties spanning from Delaware to New York.  The disasters include building collapses, floods, and hurricanes, but the most common is house fires.

“We are busy,” says Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes, CEO. She says the non-profit’s volunteers respond to about a half dozen fires in a 24 hour period, with most in Philadelphia.  But there’s one fire that rocked the non-profit to its core.

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“Gesner Street still haunts us,” she says, “but in true Red Cross fashion, Gesner Street also inspired us.”

The fire took place on July 5, 2014 in the 6500 block of Gesner Street in Southwest Philadelphia.  The fire began on a porch and quickly spread, gutting an entire block.  Four children perished in the blaze.  The fire caused controversy as residents wondered how the homes could have burned so quickly with a fire station just a few hundred feet away.

“They did not have smoke alarms, they did not have a working escape plan,” says Hughes, “and you have about two minutes to get out.”

(credit: Red Cross)

(credit: Red Cross)

Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer sits on the Red Cross Board of Directors and collectively, the groups worked to find a way to help low income neighborhoods, similar to Gesner Street, where the cost of smoke alarms with 10 year lithium batteries that comply with city code can be obstacles to fire safety.

“We wanted to do more than just respond to fires,” says Hughes.

The solution, “No More Fire Deaths,” an initiative launched with the help of the Philadelphia Fire Department.  Red Cross volunteers spent months going door to door installing 3500 free smoke alarms and helping families create a fire escape plan.  They began the effort in Southwest Philadelphia, a largely African American and immigrant community, and the area that inspired the effort.

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“We are trying to reduce or eliminate fire fatalities,” says Hughes.

She says the Red Cross can document that three families who received free smoke alarms and an escape plan had a subsequent since last July and were saved, thanks largely to their efforts.  In addition, the Red Cross is reporting a 63 percent decrease in fire deaths last year.

“Our goal is to put 600,000 smoke alarms in the city of Philadelphia,” says Hughes, “so that everyone who needs one will have them.”

Hughes says the effort costs about $120 per family, excluding volunteer time. So their goal is an expensive one. But they plan to keep on pushing.

“That’s why I’m here– to make Philadelphia better,” she says.

To volunteer or to donate, go to


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