Masanao Hirose, who oversees fire prevention at the Setagaya Fire Station, wants more households to deploy a special safety system set up by the Tokyo Fire Department.

“During the 10 years between 1991 to 2000, 60 percent of all fires in the Tokyo metropolitan area broke out in homes,” the 55-year-old Hirose said.

“About 90 percent of all deaths caused by fire also occurred in households. Of the 769 victims who died at home during this period, 448 were older than 65.”

It is believed that many of the elderly who died failed to notice that a fire had broken out or could not escape in time.

In an effort to reduce casualties, the Tokyo Fire Department launched a fire safety system in 1998 designed to be installed in the homes of elderly or disabled people.

When a fire breaks out in a residence fitted with the system, which includes a smoke or heat detector, it triggers an alarm and the fire department is alerted by means of an exclusive line.

Fire engines are then dispatched to the scene, along with one of two volunteer supporters who are preregistered by each household in the system.

All of Tokyo’s 23 wards offer the system. As of December, 654 households had signed up to use it, well up from 199 the previous year.

In 2001, the board recorded 13 cases in which the system helped to prevent a disaster.

Although specific volunteer supporters are registered, they are not always the first to arrive at the scene of a blaze.

As a case in point, Hirose told of a recent incident in which an elderly woman was rescued by an alert neighbor who heard the alarm.

“A woman in her 70s, living alone in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, set a pot on the gas stove one day to prepare dinner,” he said.

“While she waited for it to heat up, she began watching TV and forgot about it. A few minutes later, the kitchen was filled with smoke and the smoke detector went off.

“The woman, who is hard of hearing, did not notice the bell, but her neighbor rushed to the scene and turned off the gas before the fire engine arrived.”

To participate in the system, individuals must submit registration requests to their local ward office.

The system is designed for individuals living alone and couples older than 65, along with people who have a hard time handling emergencies due to physical or mental impairments.

The preregistered volunteer supporters are usually friends or neighbors.

The number of households in the system varies between wards, depending on each ward’s budget situation, although efforts are made to grant access to all who need it.

Once every three years, Hirose and his colleagues at the Setagaya Fire Station visit all the households in their jurisdiction as part of their fire prevention diagnosis.

“When we encounter households with elderly or people with handicaps, we strongly recommend them to register for the system,” he said. “But with the current recession, fire prevention is not the priority item on people’s minds.”

Users must shoulder some of the expenses, which depending on the ward can run as high as 60,000 yen.

A fire alarm generally costs between 6,000 yen and 13,000 yen, while a relay system starts at 15,000 yen.

Smoke detectors are a standard feature in homes in the United States. “I wish Japan will soon meet that sort of standard,” Hirose said, adding that every household should at least equip itself with smoke or heat detectors.

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