Did you know that, according to the National Fire Protection Association, fire departments in the U.S. responded to an estimated 355,400 home fires each year between 2012-2016? Their data shows that these fires caused an average of 2,560 civilian fire deaths and 11,670 civilian fire injuries each year, and cost $6.5 billion in direct property damage.

Our sources in the African community in Maine talked with us about the need for education and training connected to living in the kinds of homes we have here in Maine. In Africa, most houses are built out of burnt brick, clay brick, or concrete brick, and these materials are resistant to fire. On the other hand, here in Maine, most houses are built from wood, which is highly flammable. In addition, fire departments in Africa are mostly non-existent. The presence of a fire department and its role in the safety of people here in Maine comes as a surprise to many newcomers. Some people stated that it was alarming when they first heard fire trucks on the streets responding to emergency calls. The loud alarms and the bright police car lights frightened and confused them, they said. They thought that their neighborhood was under attack. In Africa, house fires are rare, so residents have little experience with fire trucks.

They pointed out that there are two broad categories of African immigrants in Maine – those who come from urban areas, and those who come from rural areas. Urban dwellers in Africa are more familiar with the kinds of homes and amenities that we have here – electrical wiring, insulation, plumbing – but the lifestyle is very different in rural areas of Africa. For example, many rural residents do their cooking either outside or in a kitchen area that is disconnected from the main house. They cook on stoves that use charcoal or wood, or on mobile gas stoves. The presence of kitchens on the inside of American houses and apartments is not typical in the African countryside. Those newly arrived here have to adapt to what are sometimes very unfamiliar living conditions.

Our sources say they would have liked in-depth training in many areas of their domestic lives, upon taking up residence in Maine, and particularly on how to be safe in their new homes. At the moment, much learning is done by trial and error, which can be dangerous when dealing with fire. Some of the trainings they would request are directly related to fire safety: how to use electrical appliances safely and efficiently, what smoke detectors are and what to do if they go off, and how to respond to a fire emergency. Fire safety directions – for devices such as fire extinguishers – are usually in English and are inaccessible to many newcomers. Newcomers point out that American companies should not assume that everyone who moves here knows how to prevent and handle fires, or how to read English.

In addition, newcomers would like training on conserving energy usage; handling household waste, including navigating the recycling system; what foods are healthy and what should be avoided; and road safety. Sometimes knowing even the most basic things in a house can be difficult; for instance, what is the best temperature setting for a refrigerator, and what food should be stored in the refrigerator or in the freezer. So much of what people who have grown up in Maine can take for granted can be very confusing to newcomers.

We are blessed with our lives and our homes, and we cannot afford to lose them. Home is the sanctuary of our private lives and is where people spend much of their time. Our homes are where we store many memories and things that are precious and valuable to us. They are where we shelter from the cold and from other dangers that may threaten us in the environment outside. We lay down to rest inside our homes every night after our daily labors.

We all want to keep our homes safe, both for the benefit of our own families and for the community at large. We should strive to support one another and to make our communities safer and stronger. We cannot assume that everyone knows how to be safe in wooden houses, with indoor kitchens and electrical appliances. Awareness and more education about fire safety is a pressing need.