Learned Behavior

As the Survive Alive House celebrates its 25th anniversary, one local teen looks back on how the fire-education program helped her save six lives.

BY MARK CONCANNON  |  PHOTOS BY DAVID SZYMANSKI

When 16-year-old Alysia Leach graduates from Destiny High School, she’ll enroll in the Milwaukee Fire Department’s (MFD) Fire Cadet Program, with the goal of becoming a firefighter. And she’ll have much more practical experience under her belt than her fellow cadets.

In 2010, she saved six lives in a house fire on Milwaukee’s north side. Leach, who was 9 at the time, calmly ushered half-a-dozen kids, all under the age of 5, to safety after a dryer caught fire in an upstairs bathroom.

“I was very happy she saved everybody, and all the kids were alive,” says Leach’s mother, Michelle McGee, who was dropping off her son down the street while Leach was babysitting.

“I was a little scared,” Leach recalls, “but I knew what to do.”

Knowing what to do was in large part thanks to MFD’s Survive Alive House, which teaches kids how to survive if a fire breaks out at their home. Milwaukee Public School (MPS) students make two field trips to Survive Alive House, in second and fifth grades, and are taught the basics of fire safety by Milwaukee firefighters — in both a classroom setting and in a model of a two-bedroom house, where they experience simulated fire conditions. Each teaching session is 90 minutes.

“When you teach kids at a certain age, if you want it to be part of their learned behavior, you have to reach them before they get to sixth grade,” says MFD Lieutenant Julian Gladney, director of Survive Alive House.

After 117 people, including 77 children, were killed in Milwaukee house fires between 1987 and 1991, MFD formed a Fire Prevention Task Force, which concluded that teaching kids fire safety at an early age could save many lives going forward. Survive Alive House, located at 2059 S. 20th St., opened in 1992.

The program, a joint effort between MFD and MPS, has been an unqualified success, as Milwaukee fire fatalities have been greatly reduced. There were only six fire deaths in 2008, with no child fire deaths reported over a two-year period.

Parents who took the class are now seeing their kids enroll. Leach’s brother, Money Scott, who was 2-years-old when she saved him in the 2009 fire, recently experienced his first Survive Alive House session.

Inside the Survive Alive House model home, there is a control panel that operates the special effects, which safely simulate a real fire. Small groups of students take part in special drills. They roll out of bed after hearing the smoke alarm, hallways fill with smoke, lights bounce around the rooms, and doors become heated.

“We tell the students to roll out of bed, yell for their parents, (and) crawl on their hands and knees,” Gladney says. “The first option is the front door. Check the door with the back of your hand. If it’s warm, check for fire (looking down) and smoke (looking up), and if it’s there, find a second way out — a window.”

The exercise concludes with a Milwaukee Fire Cadet approaching the house, asking the students what’s wrong.

“We tell them to make sure to say, ‘My house is on fire,’” Gladney add. “You’ve got to tell (the fire department) specifically what’s happening.”

Fundraising efforts and charitable contributions have allowed Survive Alive House to upgrade its technology, including computers, monitors and a 65-inch plasma touchscreen that facilitates interactive environments — strong learning tools for young students. There are also cameras inside the bedrooms of the model house, which allow students to watch various scenes of the escape and rescue as they happen.

Between 13,000 and 14,000 MPS students visit Survive Alive House every year, but Gladney wants the program to reach an even wider audience. “We’re limited now to around 13,000 kids,” he says. “My goal is to put another house on the north side, so we can do MPS and the suburban schools too.”

The second home would undoubtedly be great news for Leach, Survive Alive House’s most distinguished alum and an aspiring Milwaukee firefighter.

“Survive Alive House is important,” she says, “because you never know if a fire will break out in your house. You have to be quick enough to know what to do.”

To learn more about the Survive Alive House, visit survivealivemilwaukee.com.

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