Years after a house fire claimed Collingswood a father and his son, the borough fire department has completed a town-wide push for improved safety.
By Matt Skoufalos
Nicholas Iezzi was only six years old when his Comly Avenue home caught fire in April 2000, but the kindergartener and his father, 33-year-old Joseph Iezzi, both perished as a result.
Their home had smoke detectors, but none in the bedroom where Nicholas and his father were found; the battery inside the detector in the upstairs hallway was inoperable.
The entire community grieved the loss, but few felt it as deeply as the personnel of the Collingswood Fire Department.
It was an incredibly tough time, recalled Chief Keith Davis.
“We all knew the family,” Davis said. “We all grew up together. We all had kids that were around that age at the time.
“Our therapy was to try to make good out of it.”
In response, the borough passed Nicky’s Law, an ordinance that makes smoke detectors mandatory in every bedroom of every home upon the sale of a property. The law was the first of its kind in New Jersey.
Collingswood F.D. followed suit with a program designed to bring every residence in town up to that standard. They called it Nicky’s Block Inspection.
“We would go out with deliveries at local pizzerias and offer to install smoke detectors,” Davis said.
It was a fun and innovative approach, he recalled, but not without its hurdles (as it turns out, nobody expects the fire company to show up at dinner time).
So with a little refinement, the department altered its plan. Each platoon was to visit 90 houses a month, lot by lot, block by block, until the entire town had been canvassed.
“We knocked on every door in town to try to offer free smoke detectors,” Davis said.
“If no one was home, we would leave a letter; come back a second time in the month, leave another letter.”
Even putting house calls on hold during the unseasonable winter months, the department pressed on for years to complete the task.
Finally, by 2015, all 6,299 homes in Collingswood had at least been offered free smoke detectors and a free home safety inspection, either in person or in writing.
It’s an unprecedented effort.
There are many dedicated local fire companies in Camden County, yet Davis said he’s unfamiliar with any that have gone door to door to offer such a service. The block inspection approach improves upon typical outreach, which the chief said typically tends to be reactive, occurring shortly after a neighborhood home has been damaged by fire.
“A lot of people just don’t ever think they’re going to have a fire, [yet]most people have one or two interactions with the fire department in their lifetime,” Davis said.
For that reason, the department invites residents to consider filing a residential pre-plan.
The one-page document asks questions like the locations of gas and water shut-offs, emergency contact information, and whether the family includes special-needs persons or pets.
It also offers homeowners and renters a free safety inspection from the Collingswood Fire Department as well as free smoke detectors. In the event of an emergency, firefighters can access the pre-plan information from a secure database and save precious seconds onsite.
“Our job here is also to educate and ensure that our residents are safe,” Davis said. “We take that responsibility seriously.”
The combination volunteer-professional Collingswood Fire Department handles a tremendous volume of work, Davis said, having answered 1,200 fire calls and 1,700 EMS calls in 2014 alone.
“We have staff on 365 days a year, 24 hours a day,” the chief said. “We get to calls within three minutes, and we’re able to stop [fires]in that incipient phase.”
He believes the additional preparation will only make them that much more efficient.
To schedule a home safety inspection, call 856-854-7447 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.