Smoke alarms were not working in Bethesda home where deadly fire broke out, officials say

- Montgomery County’s first deadly fire of the year happened early Wednesday morning as two people were killed inside their Bethesda home.

Neighbors on Western Avenue were shocked to learn that the man and his mother who lived in this area for decades tragically did not make it out of their burning house.

Officials say the fire was accidental – possibly caused by discarded smoking materials or a faulty light bulb.

“We believe that one of them, the son, likely tried to fight the fire with a fire extinguisher,” said Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service spokesperson Pete Piringer. “Probably went to the aid of his mother and both of them became incapacitated and were not able to make it out.

Piringer says the smoke alarms inside of the house were not working.

“In fact, we found some new smoke alarms on a shelf in a box, but even those were dated from 2013,” he said.

The house that went up in flames resides in Montgomery County, but the area right across the street is Northwest D.C.

Firefighters went door to door in the neighborhood later in the day to remind residents to check their own smoke detectors to see if they were working normally. Montgomery County firefighters canvassed their side of Western Avenue while D.C. firefighters visited their residents on the other side of the street.

This fire is shining a spotlight on some questions that have been asked for years about how firefighters respond to calls on the border between D.C. and neighboring jurisdictions.

Former reporter and fire service consultant Dave Statter says D.C. fire units should have been the first to respond to this scene.

“Every other jurisdiction who is a neighbor of Montgomery County and all throughout the Washington region, there is automatic mutual aid,” Statter said. “That means the closest firefighters and paramedics go no matter the boundary. They cross the border. That just doesn't happen with the District of Columbia. It never has.”

He points out the nearest D.C. firehouse is about a mile closer to this home than the closest fire station in Montgomery County.

“We don't know if there could have been a difference, but we know every fire chief tells the public when there is an emergency, every second counts,” said Statter. “Those seconds don’t just go away because there is a jurisdictional boundary line. There is no wall there that says firefighters can’t do that. Just politics to keep them from crossing the line.”

Units from D.C. did respond after they received 911 calls about the fire as well. However, at that point, Montgomery County firefighters were already at the home battling the fire.

“I think mutual aid as it currently stands works well,” said D.C. Fire and EMS spokesperson Vito Maggiolo. “If Montgomery needs our help, they will call for us and we will rapidly respond. If D.C. needs Montgomery’s help or any other jurisdiction’s help, we will call for it and they will respond.”

“We had over 65 firefighters from Montgomery County on the scene in relatively a short period of time,” Piringer said. “Both departments are well-resourced in this area. In particular, it's a pretty rapid response no matter who it is.” 

Authorities have not officially identified the victims killed in the fire.

Fire officials are also reminding everyone to take extra precaution when it comes to fire safety while cooking and entertaining for the Thanksgiving holiday.

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