Students distribute smoke detectors to promote fire safety in low-income area

After the death of four residents in a low-income Tampa neighborhood, USF students volunteered to help install smoke detectors in the community.

Over 70 USF students volunteered with the Tampa and Hillsborough fire authorities, as well as the Red Cross, to install smoke alarms in East Tampa homes Sept. 2, less than 24 hours after a resident and her three grandchildren died in a fire. Over the course of three hours, they installed 171 smoke detectors in 61 homes.

For the locals, the recent death of a resident and her grandchildren brought the message home.

“When this happened right there in their neighborhood … they saw that need within their own families and began thinking about their own kids,” said Elizabeth Dunn, assistant director of the Global Disaster Management, Humanitarian Relief & Homeland Security program and adjunct professor at USF Health College of Public Health. “The fact that they didn’t survive and (due to) not having a smoke detector really hits a chord.” 

Because the area was a low-income neighborhood and most of the houses were between 30 and 50 years old, most houses did not have any smoke alarms. One home, owned by an 80-year-old man, was without a roof and had plywood for walls. 

“I haven’t even seen houses that looked like that in developing countries,” Dunn said. 

Liliana Reyes-Munoz, a senior majoring in public health and one of the student volunteers, agreed and said a number of residents confessed they had been planning to install smoke detectors but could not fit it into their budget. 

“It was emotionally really hard because you don’t realize that here, in your own backyard, there are families living like that,” she said. “It was eye-opening to realize so many people didn’t have smoke alarms in their homes.”

Dunn believes efforts like this are important in getting students involved in the community.

“It’s a great public health campaign program for students to see public health in action,” she said. “I think that’s the first time they’ve been in houses where the people are having to work really hard to try to take care of their family and have a low socio-economic standing.”

The canvassing effort also provided real-world experience for students. When working with Spanish-speaking households, Dunn said her students had to think outside the box and improvise as they figured out how to communicate with families. 

“You read about it in the classroom or textbook, and then you’re actually in the field and you can’t express to them why you are there,” she said.

Reyes-Munoz was surprised by how much she learned during the event. 

“You don’t realize how much of a preventative measure it is to have … (a smoke detector) … in your home, and it could have saved these families’ lives.” she said. “It’s so little, you don’t think somebody can’t access it, but once you start looking into the pricing, they’re not cheap. To have a program like this with the American Red Cross and being able to install them for free is amazing.”

Volunteers received training the morning of the event. From there, Dunn and her students were broken up into teams of three: the educator, documenter, and installer. Reyes-Munoz, an educator, said she talked to the residents about fire safety and created fire escape plans with them. 

“The families were really open to receiving the information and really thankful we were there,” she said. 

The documenter also talked to the residents, gathering their personal information to ensure they could be contacted for follow-up visits, while the third team member worked on the actual installation of the smoke detector, placing one in each bedroom as well as in the living space.

The program first began in October when the Red Cross received a grant from national headquarters. After years of acquiring data and researching where the most fire calls were made and which neighborhoods had the highest number of deaths due to faulty alarms, the Red Cross partnered with Tampa and Hillsborough fire officials to begin installing smoke detectors in the homes of high risk neighborhoods. 

USF students have been involved since the beginning.

“I’ve gone with students many times, and they get really excited to see USF students,” Dunn said.

The next canvassing effort is Oct. 17 in Wimauma, about two and a half hours south of campus. Those interested in participating can go online to, and choose the section with information on the Tampa Bay chapter.