By Amy Harris 

As soon as new arrivals from other countries secure housing in Maine, they need to learn how to live safely in their new homes. Houses and apartments in Maine are often constructed differently than in their countries of origin – of flammable wood, for example, instead of concrete, stone, or adobe – so people need to be told about such things as smoke detectors and best practices for cooking and heating. 

  Georges Budaku Makoko, Executive Director Ladder to the Moon Network, Publisher of Amjambo Africa, and former longtime employee of Avesta Housing, suggests that landlords help orient their tenants to their new homes. To do so effectively, they need to understand what new arrivals don’t know about living safely in Maine homes: “They need to understand where people are coming from – (often) places with different climates, housing without heating systems, without smoke detectors, and even electricity sometimes.” Emergency personnel need to educate themselves as well, Budagu said. 

  South Portland firefighter and paramedic Liz Pfeffer said that first, all new arrivals should learn how to call 911 to activate an emergency response. And they should be told that the 911 Communication Center will be able to get an interpreter on the line, so therefore they should not delay calling for help since time is often of the essence in an emergency situation. But as soon as possible, she suggested people learn enough English to be able to communicate the type of emergency they might be experiencing, such as a fire or a medical crisis, and also how to share their physical location. She also said newcomers could learn how to use Google Translate, which she and her team frequently find helpful in emergencies. Pfeffer emphasized that contacting 911 does not jeopardize someone’s citizenship status. 

Fire risk 

New arrivals often end up living in substandard, overcrowded housing, with damaged or degraded electrical wiring and possibly inadequate heating, which are recipes for home fires or other safety emergencies. If a heating system is inadequate, for example, people may bring in space heaters and sleep near them. If tenants are not told which types of devices are safe and how far they should be placed from flammable wooden walls, or that laundry cannot be hung to dry too close to the space heaters or with blankets touching the heaters, there may be consequences. 

  Teaching people how to avoid safety emergencies is a critical part of keeping all Mainers safe, and many landlords and caseworkers – but unfortunately not all – orient new tenants. “It’s not that immigrants are bad tenants, often quite the opposite. They tend to be people who work very hard, pay their rent, keep their homes clean, and simply need to be told how our homes work,” Budagu said. 

  A kitchen can be a dangerous room for those who have not been shown how to use stoves, microwaves, and smoke detectors. “We’ve seen a large number of close calls in regard to cooking fires. Many of them are due to improper cooking devices, such as hot plates, or using too-high heat – causing fire alarm activation, or leaving pots on stoves unattended, and also disconnected smoke detectors,” Pfeffer said. The National Fire Protection Association reports that substandard cooking equipment such as hot plates is one leading cause of reported home structure fires and fire injuries in the U.S.; another is leaving the stove unattended while cooking. 

Disposing of cooking oils and grease down a sink drain is the number one cause of household pipe clogs and necessitates an expensive visit from a plumber. Wait for hot oil to cool to room temperature, then pour it into a metal or other heat-resistant container with a screw-on lid. Do not pour the oil onto the ground outside or into the trash bin while it is still hot. 

All families should have a fire escape plan and review how to safely get out of their house or apartment if there is a fire, as well as where to meet up once outside.  

Do not use the elevator if there is a fire. 

While working with Avesta, Budagu said, he saw several people who had been injured by grease cooking fires. He said people need to know that adding water to a grease fire causes the hot grease to splatter, so they should not add water. Attempting to move a burning pot or pan is also dangerous. Instead, he advised turning off the stove or burner and covering the pot or pan with a lid (metal only – a glass lid may shatter). If the grease fire is in the oven, keep the oven door closed. If the fire is minor, pour baking soda or salt or flour  on a grease fire or use a fire extinguisher. But if the fire can’t be extinguished quickly, evacuate the house or apartment and call 911. 


Protective devices such as smoke and carbon monoxide detectors may be unfamiliar to new arrivals. But smoke detectors save lives, and Maine state law requires that all rental units be equipped with them. Some tenants are wary of these detectors because they fear fines or trouble with their landlords as a result of false alarms, so they may disable them. But many people are injured or die each year because they do not use their alarms properly. So if indoor cooking frequently sets off a smoke alarm, do not disable the detectors – instead, open windows or turn on indoor fans to try to remove the smoke. And remember that smoke detectors need working batteries to do their job. If they are beeping, it probably means that the batteries need to be changed. 

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, clear gas that can build up inside indoor spaces, causing serious injury and death. Some smoke detectors are also carbon monoxide detectors, but not all are, so tenants should check with the landlord to confirm. For people who are deaf and hard of hearing or with blindness or low vision, specially designed smoke and carbon monoxide detectors feature flashing lights. 

All landlords and tenants should know the location of fire extinguishers in their units and how to use them. Landlords should demonstrate the correct use of fire extinguishers and check their expiration dates (most of the labeling will be in English, so new arrivals may not be able to read or understand the instructions). Ideally, there should be a fire extinguisher on each floor of a house, in any room with a fireplace, wood stove, pellet stove, or electric room heater, and in the kitchen. 

  Many refugees and asylum seekers have endured prior traumatic experiences with police or other government employees. Therefore, they may be hesitant to seek advice on how to install alarms in their homes and may not respond to fire service outreach activities on topics such as installing smoke alarms. Building trust and understanding with firefighters and other emergency safety personnel is clearly essential.