While getting ready for school one morning at age 12, Emily Wemhoff of Creston, Neb. (pop. 215), heard a radio report about a house fire in nearby Lincoln that claimed the life of a young mother.
"The son survived and was sobbing for his mom," recalls Wemhoff, now 20. "It made me so sad."
Then she heard the words that continue to trouble and motivate her to campaign for fire safety. "The fire chief said they had a smoke alarm, but it was old and not working."
Wemhoff immediately found the smoke alarm in her own home and pressed the test button.
"That was a scary feeling," she recalls, "and I wondered how many other people do not have a working smoke alarm."
Wemhoff, now a junior majoring in public relations at the University of Nebraska in Kearney (pop. 27,431), started her fire safety campaign in 2002 as a 4-H Club project by calling every household with a Creston telephone number217 in allto make sure each had a working alarm.
"If they did, I had them test it while I was on the phone," Wemhoff says. She then used a local grant to purchase devices for 25 homes without alarms and, with the help of her parents, Geri and Dave Wemhoff, delivered them with extra batteries and a list of fire-safety tips in bags that she labeled "Project S.A.F.E." for Save a Friend Every Day.
"For a 12-year-old kid, this is an amazing feat," says Lisa Kaslon, 4-H extension educator for Platte County. "But then Emily took this small-town project to a whole different level and turned it into a state project."
Since having a working alarm is only one step toward fire safety, Wemhoff organized Practice Your Fire Escape Plan Day and convinced Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman in 2005 to make the initiative a statewide event. Now, every year before National Fire Prevention Week in October, she recruits firefighters across Nebraska to distribute yellow wristbands to schoolchildren that remind them to practice a home fire escape plan. More than 80,000 wristbands have been handed out.
"The kids wear the wristbands all day long and then they go home and their parents ask about them," Wemhoff says. Ideally, the families will review their fire escape plans, which should identify two exits from every room and a safe meeting place outside. Ultimately, she wants to involve fire departments in all 50 states.
Through the years, Wemhoff has promoted her Fire Escape Plan Day in a speech before 1,500 firefighters, sold hotdogs and sundaes to raise money for an eye-catching promotional billboard, and visited elementary schools to share her fire safety message. Last year, she helped schoolchildren in nearby Columbus (pop. 20,971) decorate 333 milk jugs to represent Nebraska's 333 house fires in 2007, inserting a lit candle in each jug and displaying the luminarias at a local Wal-Mart parking lot. Wemhoff also delivered fire alarms to residents of a Columbus mobile-home park and distributed yellow wristbands in her own college dormitory. "People seem really thankful when I hand them out," she says. "They like that someone else seems to care."
Her efforts undoubtedly are saving lives, says Stacey Lovewell, 38, a firefighter for the Columbus Volunteer Fire Department. "We know that there are more smoke alarms in our town because of Emily and that there are kids going home and practicing their plans."
Wemhoff says helping others is part of who she is. "What keeps me inspired to promote fire safety is the number of house fires I stumble upon when reading newspapers or watching the news," she says. "What makes me try even harder is when I hear about someone who died."