Friday, July 26, 1996
Proposal aims to idiot-proof risk from fire

The Cincinnati Enquirer

At 3 years old, Harold Enoch is an unadulterated little boy.

He loves his mom, Savora Stephens. They hold hands when they cross the street. He listens to what she says. He doesn't play with matches. And he's wild about firetrucks.

''They make that 'rrrrr' noise. They got lights. And they're red,'' the little guy from Fairmount says as he stares at a ladder truck parked on Sixth Street.

He doesn't know that these red trucks go to where the news is bad. Accidents. Deaths. Fires sometimes caused by little boys.

Cincinnati's Fire Chief Tom Steidel and Councilman Todd Portune hope the Harolds of Cincinnati always have good thoughts about red firetrucks. They want to reduce the number of children trapped in burning buildings and hearing the sirens coming for them.

The chief and the councilman have proposed a fire-prevention package of education and legislation.

My first reaction was they had gone too far. More Big Brotherism. Now, after using my brain instead of my gut reaction, I'm convinced they're on the right track.

Put the fire out

Their requests are simple and designed to save lives.

They want smoke detectors to be required in every home - not just apartments and new homes as the law now states.

They want fire-prevention classes - a program called Learn Not To Burn - in all the schools.

They also want a law that holds parents responsible - and liable for prosecution and jail time - if they let their kids play with fire.

Similar laws are already on the books. Parents are cited if their children skip school. Adults can't serve alcohol to minors at home.

Mr. Portune was one of the prime sponsors of a Cincinnati ordinance on deadly weapons: If an adult carelessly lets a gun fall into the hands of a minor and the kid commits a crime with that weapon, the grown-up - even if he did not pull the trigger - is legally responsible.

I hesitated at the new law, thinking you can't legislate responsibility. Parents either take care of their kids or they don't.

Chief Steidel won me over to his side. He's seen the tragic results when parents fall down on the job and let their children play with fire. He's had to walk into charred houses and find little bodies under burned-out beds. He convinced me this painful lack of parental concern is a terrible form of child abuse.

He knows no law will make someone a model parent. ''But, if 100 people decide to take better care of their kids because they can go to jail if they don't,'' reasons the chief, ''we haven't lost anything. And, look what we've gained.''

To Mr. Portune's way of thinking, his law is ''for people who don't get it, who are, if I may be so blunt, too stupid to realize that you don't let children play with things that are going to catch fire.''

Learn from tragedy

Cincinnati, the record shows, has some people who are too stupid.

On May 1, an attic fire caused by parental neglect and a child playing with matches killed a 5-year-old boy, his 3-year-old sister and their 18-month-old brother.

They were the eighth, ninth and 10th fire-related deaths in Cincinnati for 1996. That's five more than 1995, two more than 1994, four more than 1993.

Of the 10 deaths, five were children. Of those 10 fire fatalities, six shared the same cause. Listed on the city's sheet of statistics are three stark words: ''Child with fire.''

A parent was home during the Price Hill fire. The father - Anthony Edwards - has been charged with three counts each of involuntary manslaughter and child endangering.

The fire chief worked hard persuading lawmen to press these charges. He showed prosecutors photos of the victims and the condition of their house. He took great pains to convince them this was not just a case of bad baby-sitting.

Not only would the proposed law make it easier to charge this man, the message it sends also could act as a dose of preventive medicine. It might wake up some adults and cause them to act less like irresponsible jerks who place no value on human life and more like parents who care.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.