Lives Saved in Dixon, IL

Lives Saved in Dixon, IL

“If it wasn’t for the smoke alarms, I wouldn’t be here today. I’m still trying to get over this experience. I’ve been through hurricanes and tornadoes — this is probably the worst.”

Fred and his wife Gina were asleep when they were awakened by the shrill sound of the smoke alarm. To their shock, they woke up to complete darkness due to the dark heavy smoke that had already permeated their apartment.

“We couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces. We knew we had to get out, but we couldn’t find our cats and we were trying to put on shoes and coats because it was cold. My wife made it out. I stayed behind looking for our pets and quickly became disoriented and overcome by the heavy smoke. The sound of the beeping smoke alarm and the firemen led me closer to the exit, thankfully.”

On October 13, 2021, the Dixon Fire Department through the Red Cross Sound the Alarm program, installed free smoke alarms in Fred and Gina’s apartment. Fred credits these working smoke alarms with saving his and his wife’s lives.

“During a home fire, it’s important that the occupants of the house get out in a quick manner.  With today’s modern construction techniques and modern furnishings of homes the time needed to get out safely is much shorter than years past so smoke alarms are far more important than ever before,” shared Ryan Buskohl, Chief, Dixon Fire Department.

Working smoke alarms saved Fred and Gina’s lives. Working smoke alarms can cut the risk of death in a home fire by 50 percent.

“I am thankful to the Red Cross. Not only did we have working smoke alarms because of their Sound the Alarm program, but they have been so supportive. Make sure you have working smoke alarms in your apartment or your house – anywhere you live, have smoke alarms in case of fire.”

To help prevent fire-related deaths and injuries, the Red Cross launched the Home Fire Campaign with community partners in 2014 to reduce fire-related deaths and injuries. With support from thousands of community partners, the Red Cross Sound the Alarm campaign has met its goal of installing 2.5 million free smoke alarms and making 1 million households safer across the country. So far, the Home Fire Campaign is credited with saving more than 1,583 lives in the U.S. – 45 of those lives right in Illinois. Because home fires remain a daily threat and the campaign has made a lifesaving difference, the Red Cross will be continuing the program with community partners as part of its standard services across the country.

Visit to learn more.

Written by Illinois Communications Manager Connie Esparza

Four Generations of a South Side Family Safer with Smoke Alarms

28420460352_0285211dc6_oCHICAGO, IL – In a four-story apartment building on the South Side, four generations and 10 members of the French family received a visit July 23 by the American Red Cross.

From the basement to the top floor, volunteers installed 15 smoke alarms in the building and planned an escape route for everyone inside in case of emergency.

Apartment complex owner Larry French heard the Red Cross and the Greater Auburn-IMG_0310Gresham Development Corporation was coming to his neighborhood and opened the door to have his entire building equipped with new, 10-year battery smoke alarms.

“Anything to protect my family,” said Larry, whose elderly parents, Howard and Queen, live below him on the first floor. “I look out for them all the time, you only got one parents; and we all have to help out one another.”

28494225916_a8d4c13e2e_oInside each residence, the Red Cross installed smoke alarms near the kitchen and sleeping areas. In the common stairwell, an old smoke alarm was chirping, so the installation team replaced that one too.

“You never know when a fire will happen, you could be in your pajamas and it’ll just happen,” Howard said.

Larry’s cousin, Crystal French, lives on the top floor with her young boys and felt better knowing her family was safer and knows what to do to help all members of her family on all floors during an emergency.

“It’s all about keeping constant contact, it’s important to ask family: Are you okay? Do you need anything? Since the Red Cross gave us this education, we now might be able to work out a good safety plan,” she said.

28425716871_ecb6af6faf_oIn addition to the 15 smoke alarms installed in the French family’s complex, the Red Cross, joined by community volunteers from the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation, went door-to-door in the Auburn-Gresham community and installed more than 400 smoke alarms in a single day. More than 60 volunteers from both organizations also educated residents about fire safety and helped families create a personalized escape plan to exit their home during an emergency.

The Red Cross Home Fire Campaign is a multi-year effort to reduce the number of home IMG_3018fire deaths and injuries by 25 percent. Working with fire departments and community groups across the country, the Red Cross is installing smoke alarms in homes in neighborhoods at high risk for fires and teaching residents about fire prevention and preparedness. Locally, the Red Cross will install 6,600 smoke alarms in the coming months in communities across Northern Illinois.

See more photos of the Auburn-Gresham Smoke Alarm Rally here.

WHAT PEOPLE CAN DO People can visit to find out more about how to protect themselves and their loved ones from a fire. They can become a Red Cross volunteer. They can also help by donating to Red Cross Disaster Relief by, calling 1-800-RED CROSS or texting the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation. Donations to Disaster Relief will be used to prepare for, respond to and help people recover from disasters big and small.


Story by: Tyler Bieschke, Public Affairs Volunteer & Patricia Kemp, Communications Manager, American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois 

Photos by: Danny Diaz and Ira Meinhofer, Public Affairs Volunteers, American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois


The Pillowcase Project: Kids sleep well knowing they’re prepared

Ten-year-old twins Isabella and Daniella have a lot in common, but they have different ideas about what to take in an emergency.

Isabella is packing a flashlight and batteries. Her sister is taking a toothbrush and toothpaste. All are good supplies if their family has to leave their house in a hurry, and both girls discovered a pillowcase is the perfect carrying case for all of it.

The twins and more than 50 of their fellow campers at Evanston’s Y.O.U. (Youth Organizations Umbrella) summer camp at Washington Elementary School this summer learned how to create an emergency kit using a pillowcase they decorated and personalized with colored markers. The American Red Cross program educates kids about natural hazards and coping skills using hands-on learning activities that blend art and science.

It’s called The Pillowcase Project. Y.O.U. Executive Director Seth Green said families of children who complete the program can sleep well knowing their household is more prepared.

“When children are in a safe, comfortable place they trust, they absorb ideas and thoughts to help them grow, learn and be empowered to persevere if confronted in moments of risk,” said Green. “The highlight is watching them connect that learning experience with the images and messages they draw on their pillowcase.”

Nine-year-old Margaret drew pictures of soap, a water bottle and a t-shirt on her pillowcase – necessities she wants underlined with words “I’m safe.” If her family ever has to leave her house at a moment’s notice, she’ll be ready.

“I learned a lot about what to do in emergencies that I didn’t know before,” she said. “When I go home I’m going to put this pillowcase right beside my bed.”

The Pillowcase Project was inspired by a story of college students in New Orleans carrying their belongings in pillowcases during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

In the Greater Chicago area, the Red Cross will teach more than 5,000 kids in grades 3 to 5 these preparedness skills through youth development programs including Y.O.U, the Chicago Police Department, Chicago Public Schools, and more throughout the region.

The Pillowcase Project emphasizes the importance of families developing an emergency communications plan, a fire evacuation plan and emergency contact cards. Children also learn about the science of natural disasters, the difference between storm warnings and watches, and dangerous weather patterns including thunderstorms, lightening and tornadoes.

At the end of the lesson, kids have fun using markers to color and personalize their pillowcase, which can easily carry emergency supplies during a disaster. The program is sponsored by Disney.

“Red Cross instructors take a scientific-based approach with hands-on activities, while at the same time, show children how to take a simple object—a pillowcase—and use it in an emergency if they have to evacuate their home,” said Fran Edwardson, Chief Executive Officer, American Red Cross, Greater Chicago Region. “Working with youth organizations, the Red Cross is helping children build confidence and learn coping skills in the event of an emergency.”

 Written by Patricia Kemp, Communications Manager, American Red Cross of Greater Chicago

Kamryn McPike, American Red Cross volunteer contributed to this story

Photos by Gerry Holmes, American Red Cross volunteer

For more photos of The Pillowcase Project:

Team Firestopper Helps Families Feel Safe


Tonya Howard is a foster mom who wants a safe home for children. That’s why she opened her door to the Chicago Red Cross Team Firestopper to check for potential fire hazards.

Tonya lives in the Roseland neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. The area is one of the highest response zones for Red Cross disaster relief teams who respond to home fires there about once a week.

Tonya’s block hasn’t had any incidents, but she’s taking preventative measures. Red Cross volunteers armed her with a new fire extinguisher, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, electrical surge protectors and more. Together, they all walked through the living room, checked batteries in the detectors and headed to the kitchen.

“A lot of fires are sparked by grease over the stove,” said Team Firestopper director Yvette Alexander-Maxie, who advised Tonya to keep the fire extinguisher within arms length. “A lot of people make the mistake of putting it away in the pantry or closet and that wastes precious seconds of time digging for it as flames and smoke climb the wall.”

More than 50 Red Cross volunteers distributed free fire prevention kits in Tonya’s neighborhood whose residents scheduled home visits during a two-day Red Cross community preparedness event last spring.

The Team Firestopper program works to prevent home fires in neighborhoods with a higher number of residential fires as part of its efforts to create a disaster-resistant community. Red Cross relief teams responded to 70 incidents last year in the Roseland neighborhood. After those disasters, the Red Cross assisted more than 300 people, 130 of them children, with food, shelter, clothing, health and mental health services.

Elsewhere in the greater Chicago region, the Red Cross helps people when responding to three to four home fires every day. The Red Cross provides fire victims with immediate assistance and other special needs an affected family might have.

Tonya’s home passed inspection and she was grateful for the fire prevention tips and safety equipment received from the Red Cross.

These safety events are made possible due to Motorola Solutions and State Farm and additional support from UL, First Alert and ACE. For more information on the Red Cross Team Firestopper program visit

Written by: Patricia Kemp, Communications Manager, American Red Cross, Greater Chicago Region

Make Your Identity Fireproof

Nobody was home on Friday when the fire broke out in the first floor bedroom. By the time Patricia and LaToya got back home, the fire department had already come and gone. The entire inside of their house was black from the ashes and dank from the layer of watery mucus streaked with boot prints covering the floor. The bedroom ceiling had been gutted and light from the exposed gash provided the only source of light on the piles of splintered wood and overturned furniture now mangled into unrecognizable heaps.

Patricia and LaToya were still reeling from the shock of what had happened to their home when volunteers from the Red Cross Disaster Action Team (DAT) arrived on scene. The group walked through the sisters’ West 61st Street home, taking in the extent of the wreckage in silence. Patricia’s two children, a 14 year-old daughter and a 13 year-old son, were at school– thank goodness for that at least– but where were their medical cards? To assess how the Red Cross was going to help her family, the volunteers needed to verify who lived inside the house. All Patricia could find was the trunk where the children’s medical cards were located—and they weren’t in there now. Angela, a social work intern on the Disaster Action Team, tried to calm her down and told Patricia the Red Cross will give her time to retrieve copies of any documents she needed. Halfway through the interview, Patricia was finally able to locate her medical cards.

The fire in Patricia’s home probably started spontaneously from faulty electrical wiring–there was no way anyone could have predicted what would happen as they left the house on that fateful morning. By the time the family got back, things were so chaotic, physically and mentally, that the simple act of piecing together a coherent picture of life before the fire became fraught with anxiety. Witnessing Patricia’s stress while trying to account for the identity of her children popped all sorts of questions about the safety of my own records at home: Sure, I kept this letter in the yellow folder in that drawer–but would I be able to find it if that room got wrecked? Would there even be anything left to find?

Suddenly I realized how vulnerable we all are to losing our identity. How even more critical those bits of cards and paper become in the immediate aftermath of an attack on our homes. It was a stroke of good luck that nobody was inside when the fire broke out in Patricia’s house, but it also meant that trying to regroup in the wake of all that destruction became that much harder. The last thing you want to worry about when your house lays tattered before you is trying to prove you actually live there. That’s why Angela counsels carrying some documentation verifying your home address at all times. An old bill or a cancelled check tucked into the back of a wallet could turn out to be the small sliver of relief amidst a day of loss and disorientation.

Written by: Christine Li

Frayed Wires Cause Fires

Yamina and Amira stayed home from school last Wednesday with a shared case of pink-eye. Chiquita, their guardian, was at work when the two girls smelled smoke coming up through the vents, and heard the alarms blaring. They ran downstairs and started pounding on the door.
Chiquita rents the second-floor apartment from an elderly woman who lives downstairs with her son and caretaker Jerry. He was taking a midday nap, but the smoke alarms, and perhaps the girls pounding on the door, jolted him awake.

With the overwhelming stench, Jerry knew this wasn’t a false alarm. He swung open the basement door, and smoke poured out as if from a chimney. He couldn’t see a thing, and in the split second before dialing 9-1-1, Jerry mourned the probable death of the three pet turtles he kept in an aquarium downstairs.

The fire department appeared in seconds, and after putting the fire out, they showed Jerry where it all started: the downstairs refrigerator was plugged in to an extension cord, and when it sparked, the surrounding woodwork shot up in flames.

“It was plugged in like that for 50 years,” Jerry said. “I had no idea it was a problem.” The firefighters explained to Jerry that large appliances like refrigerators must be grounded—plugged into a three-prong outlet or power strip—and that electrical cords should be checked routinely, and replaced if frayed. Electrical fires are one of the leading causes of home fires. The U.S. Fire Administration provides tips for preventing these fires.

Jerry was down about the destruction caused by the fire, though he was glad that most of his and his mothers’ possessions were only tainted with the smell of smoke. “We’ve got 50 years’ worth of stuff down there,” he said. He still wore a smile, though: all three turtles survived.

Volunteers from the Red Cross were able to provide food and shelter to the people affected by this fire. Home fires are so commonplace that they often go unnoticed by the media, but they happen 2 to 3 times a day, every day in Chicagoland.

Make sure to inspect your home for fire hazards, and be active in preventing them. See the USFA page on home fire prevention, and our page on fire safety. The Red Cross offers a fire prevention program, Team Firestopper, which provides education and fire prevention activities in communities that are disproportionately affected by home fires. Team Firestopper volunteers conduct home hazard hunts to identify issues like this one before they cause destruction. For information about volunteering with Team Firestopper or to sign up for a visit to your home, go to

Written by: Jonathan Bressler

Windy Welcome

The first impression Chicago made on this native Californian was on the flight here five years ago. Sitting next to me was one of those sweet, gentle-mannered ladies that reminded everyone of their favorite aunt or grandmother so you soon find yourself helplessly babbling on about your plans for the big city under the warm, fuzzy embrace of that empathetic glow. Just as we were about to part ways before the gate, said lady put a firm hand on my arm and looked into my eyes with all apparent seriousness as she warned: “just remember to put some rocks in your pocket before you go out in the winter. You’re so tiny!”

Well…that was bizarre…so I had filed the remark away as a strand of kookiness buried under all those layers of Midwestern charm—until one day that first winter I was trotting down the street and suddenly knew I had to come to a full stop and rebalance my weight, just so, you know, the gust wouldn’t sweep me away.

While I still couldn’t quite bring myself to pad up on the rocks, there are a couple of other things I learned to do to stay on my feet to adjust to the real possibility of hurricanes or almost hurricanes—as the storms we experienced over the last two days apparently were. The Red Cross has step-by-step Before, During, After, and Recovery action guidelines to help you make sure you and your loved ones stay safe and up to date. Know the difference between a Hurricane Watch and a Hurricane Warning. Download this handy checklist to post on the fridge.

Prolonged power outages are another effect of violent weather conditions that can be buffered with some simple preparation. Check out the Red Cross’s page on what to stock up when you’re in the dark and how to check in on how friends and family are doing in the aftermath of a disaster.

Written by: Christine Li

Starting Over: Former Red Cross Intern Shares his Recovery Story

Last Christmas, Zach Zimmerman, a former Red Cross intern, found himself in a similar position as the families he helped during his time here. His family was victim to a home fire sparked by a space heater. Now, 10 months later, Zach reflects on the process of recovery and how his experience at the Red Cross helped him get through the hard times.

It has been a long road for Zach’s family from the day the fire occurred to when his house was finally rebuilt. The weeks following the fire and Zach’s first encounter with his childhood home were particularly difficult, “Walking through the house, I’d see things from my childhood that were extremely sentimental and the remains of what my mom had worked so hard to create for us: a home.”

Eventually, his family regained hope that they could successfully pick up the pieces and rebuild their lives. “As new hardwood floors went in, debris and glass was taken out of the yard and a fresh coat of paint was applied, I found myself excited to move back in,” Zach said. “This fire helped me put a myriad of things into perspective. Things are really just things, and nothing comes to being more important than your family.”

Zach stressed the importance of a strong support system when going through a traumatic experience. Family and friends can be the rock you need for long term recovery. “Whether it’s helping you sort through the rubble, or simply taking you out for a much needed day of fun, your family and friends are the best healing doctors in the world.”

As Red Cross interns, we are able to accompany teams when they respond to actual home fires that occur in the greater Chicago region to help communicate with the families and see them through the disaster. Zach and I have both been on the scene while families cope with disaster. When I asked how his time at the Red Cross helped him recover he said, “With the experience seeing others deal with the devastation of a fire under my belt, talking to my family about the fire was easier for me. I knew what they needed to hear, and I also knew how to help them realize the positives in the situation.”

It is crucial to get a kit, make a plan, and be informed. Through this disaster, Zach and his family learned the importance of being prepared first hand. “We have created an emergency evacuation plan to be prepared if something like this ever happens again. It’s critical that everyone knows what to do in a situation like that. Being prepared can only benefit you, so take the time to make sure you’re ready to act when a disaster happens.”

The American Red Cross offers immediate support after a disaster, but long term recovery is equally important. For more on Zach’s experience, read his blog post.

Written by: Katie Donabedian

Prepare Your Kids to Stay Afloat

“When that summer sun starts beatin’ down
And you don’t know what to do
Grab your swimming trunks
Ice up that old igloo
Drive until the map turns blue”

-Brad Paisley

As an avid fan of live music, I always strive to learn the words to new songs before I see my favorite artists perform. Brad Paisley stops by Chicago in August and I will be especially proud to sing every line of his new single, “Water.”

While listening to my favorite country artist croon about fun times near the water, I think about the great memories I have of spending hours at the local pool with childhood friends. Even though I have grown out of my floaties, I still enjoy swimming now. Just like Brad’s song, “Water,” when the “summer sun starts beatin’ down” I have been “driv[ing] until the map turns blue” to get to the pool or beach during warm summer days. At the beach this summer I have seen a lot of close calls where lifeguards stepped in at just the right moment to prevent accidents, so I reached out to a good friend to learn about how to stay safe in and around water.

Barbara Nichols became Red Cross Certified in lifeguarding in 2005 because, as a child, she admired her cousins for working hard to protect patrons at the aquatic center in her hometown. She is currently head lifeguard at her local pool, a position that she has held for 5 years. In her years of service, she has seen firsthand that children who are introduced to swimming by their parents are more open to taking swimming lessons and are less afraid of the water.

Barbara says that the most important thing parents can do is be proactive about their children’s safety. She recommends that parents “take safety precautions and follow facility rules” to set a good example for their kids.

Barbara stresses that “it’s important to just enter the water safely and stay in areas where you are comfortable swimming.”

Make your own memories this summer by enjoying warm weather swimming and aquatic activities with just a few helpful hints in mind from an experienced lifeguard.

Barbara and the Red Cross offer a few extra tips to make the most out of your time in the water:

• Use and reapply sunscreen liberally.
• Stay hydrated by drinking lots of water.
• Cover all cuts and scrapes properly before entering the water.
• Avoid alcohol consumption as it impairs judgment, balance and coordination, and affects swimming and diving skills.
• If you go boating, wear a life jacket! Most boating fatalities occur from drowning.
• Always swim with a buddy; do not allow anyone to swim alone. Even at a public pool or a lifeguarded beach, use the buddy system!
• Never leave a young child unattended near water and do not trust a child’s life to another child; teach children to always ask permission to go near water.

The best way to prevent disaster in the water is to learn how to swim. Enroll in age-appropriate Red Cross Learn-to-Swim courses. Young children or inexperienced swimmers should wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket around water. Lifejackets are one type of Personal Floatation Devices (PFD) and can vary depending on weight and size. Further instructions about the proper use of PFD’s can be found here.

If you are interested in learning more about water safety and lifesaving like Barbara, Lifeguarding courses and Red Cross Certification programs are offered at local aquatic facilities.
To find courses contact your local Red Cross Chapter.

Be Red Cross Ready.

Written by Blair Janis

Staying Safe on the Road in Drizzle, Sleet, and Snow

When I was a kid I used to love waking up and seeing the sparkly white sheet of snow outside, and wished that there would be enough of it for me to make a snowman. But as an adult the mere mention of snow throws me in a state of panic. This morning I woke up and realized that I had to drive my nephew to his school in snowy weather. Although my nephew’s school is less than 5 minutes away, it’s a dangerous route as the chances of skidding on the narrower street are much higher.

Before leaving my home I decided to make a plan and take the routes that I knew would minimize the risk of my car skidding. If you are in the same situation as me and your best option is to drive, it’s a good idea to pre-plan your commute. Here are some useful tips from the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago:

Before you hit the roads
• Let your family or friends know your destination, your primary and alternate routes, and when you expect to arrive. If your vehicle gets stuck along the way, help can be sent along your predetermined route.
• Pay attention to the weather forecast. Your local TV and radio stations can provide updated storm information that can help you avoid treacherous weather.

If you are stranded
• Stranded drivers should stay with the vehicle and not try to walk to safety. You can quickly become disoriented in wind-driven snow and run the risk of developing hypothermia and frostbite. Exercise your arms and legs to maintain body heat.
• Use the heater for 10 minutes every hour and leave the overhead light on when the engine is running so you can be seen.
• Keep the exhaust pipe clear so fumes won’t back up in the vehicle
• Make it easier for rescuers to find you by tying a brightly colored cloth to the antenna
• After the snow has subsided, raise the hood to indicate you need help.

In snowy weather it is important to keep calm while driving and be prepared. For more safety tips visit winter storm safety and preparation, please visit the

Written by: Erica Serna