As a 41-year veteran firefighter, Michael Casagrande has faced more than 2,000 fires. A Kankakee Fire Department captain, Casagrande is experienced in putting out fires, but knows that fighting fires before they happen is the ultimate battle.
Casagrande, who leads the Fire Prevention Division for the City of Kankakee, is dedicated to fire prevention and education. He has led the installation of more than 10,000 smoke alarms across Kankakee since 2015. This number of installations is extremely significant, given that the city of Kankakee is home to approximately 10,000 households. Casagrande and the Kankakee Fire Department, in partnership with the American Red Cross and through a grant from FEMA, blanketed Kankakee homes with smoke alarms.
As this program was launching in 2015, Casagrande felt particularly shaken by several tragic home fires. That year, four small children died in Kankakee home fires. One of them was a young girl who lost her life when her mother tried to carry both her and a sibling through the fire to the front door, passing possible escape windows. Casagrande knew that fire education paired with working smoke alarms could have prevented this tragedy and would prevent future heart break.
Casagrande and his Fire Prevention Division began educating Kankakee children about fire prevention through programs like the Fire Safety House program. Initially, these school programs targeted children only, however, Casagrande and his team quickly realized that the message also needed to be relayed to parents. Casagrande altered the program to involve parents and continued his quest to install smoke alarms. For the past two years there have been no fire fatalities in Kankakee.
For the past two years there have been no fire fatalities in Kankakee.
According to Casagrande, “It didn’t matter who you are or what your housing situation is, whether you rent or you own, we educated and installed the alarms necessary for all populations in need in the community.” Casagrande’s close relationship to his community was critical to the program’s success. Some of the people served were members of the migrant worker community who do not speak English and were fearful of authority. The team strategized carefully around community needs to ensure every household felt comfortable receiving this life-saving resource.
Casagrande and the Kankakee Fire Department know their program is saving lives. In several cases, the Fire Department uncovered substantial gas leaks during smoke alarm installations which were repaired, averting potentially fatal crises.
In 2017, Marsean Harris and her young family escaped a house fire because of the smoke alarms that Casagrande and his team installed. Harris said, “It was terrible. We woke up to the smoke alarm. By the time we made it out, the house was engulfed in flames. I thank God for those smoke alarms, having two small kids and a baby on the way.” To hear about this family’s story in a video, click here.
The Firefighter Award is presented to a professional, volunteer firefighter(s), or medical personnel related to dispatch operations at a fire department who acted above and beyond the call of duty, exhibiting heroism either in response to an emergency situation or through an ongoing commitment to the community.
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