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Have you checked your smoke detector lately?: Wemhoff makes national headlines as a 'Hometown Hero' for fire safety program
Chelsea Archer
Antelope Staff
Courtesy Photo
Emily Wemhoff places a Practice Your Fire Escape Plan Day wristband on program participants. Wemhoff created Project S.A.F.E. when she was only 12 years old.

Each year, more than 300 house fires occur in Nebraska. For Emily Wemhoff, a junior from Creston majoring in public relations, those are 300 house fires too many.

While getting ready for school at the age of 12, Wemhoff heard a radio report about a house fire that took the life of a young mother.

“The son survived and was sobbing for his mom,” she said. “It made me so sad.”

But what she heard next troubled her. “The fire chief said they had a smoke alarm, but it was old and not working.” Wemhoff immediately went to the smoke alarm in her home and pressed the test button.
Silence.

“That was a scary feeling,” she said, “and I wondered how many other people do not have a working smoke alarm.”

After that, Wemhoff started her own fire safety campaign in 2002 as a 4-H Club project. She called every household in Creston, 217 total, to make sure each had a working alarm.

“If they did, I had them test it while I was on the phone,” Wemhoff said. She then used a local grant to purchase 25 smoke alarms for homes who did not have working alarms and with the help of her parents, Geri and Dave Wemhoff, she delivered them with extra batteries and a list of fire safety tips in bags labeled “Project S.A.F.E.” which means, Save a Friend Every Day.

Since then, Wemhoff has taken her small town project and turned it into a statewide event. She organized Practice Your Fire Escape Plan Day and in 2006 convinced Gov. Dave Heineman to make it a statewide event. Now, each year before National Fire Prevention Week in October, she recruits firefighters across Nebraska to distribute yellow wristbands to schoolchildren to remind them to practice a home fire escape plan. More than 80,000 wristbands have been handed out. Ultimately, she wants to involve all 50 states in the event.

“The kids wear the wristbands all day long, and then they go home and their parents ask about them,” Wemhoff said. Hopefully, the families will review their fire escape plans, which should be two exits identified from every room and a safe meeting place outside.

Wemhoff has promoted her “Practice Your Fire Escape Plan Day” in a speech in front of 1,500 firefighters, sold hotdogs and sundaes to raise money for an eye-catching billboard, visited elementary schools to share her message and last year helped children light candles in 333 decorated milk jugs in a local Wal-Mart parking lot to symbolize Nebraska’s house fires in 2007.

Recently, Wemhoff’s story has caught national attention. “American Profile,” a weekly magazine, picked up Wemhoff’s story after publishing an announcement last October in the state events section.

“One or two sentences about ‘Practice Your Fire Escape Plan Day Across Nebraska’ was printed, not a big deal or anything,” Wemhoff said, “until it caught the attention of the editors, and they began calling me for a feature story in the ‘Hometown Heroes’ section.”

Her article was published the first week of October.

“It was heart pounding because I had a feeling I was finally going to get several responses. To know that it was distributed all over the United States,” Wemhoff said, “it just made my heart race, and I was anxious to see what kind of response from people I was going to get.”

Since then, more than 25 orders have been placed from citizens, teachers and firefighters from 15 different states. Wemhoff has also been invited to speak at conferences in Arizona and near Chicago.

“One of the best things that has happened since the article was published was receiving letters from people I didn’t even know,” she said. “One man sent me a card along with a long letter that really opened my eyes to realize that people do notice good work that people do for their community. It’s simple things like that, that really push me to strive for the best in everything I do.”

The future of Project S.A.F.E. is showing no signs of burning out soon.

“I don’t plan on discontinuing Project S.A.F.E.,” Wemhoff said. “It has been in my life since I was 12. I just can’t picture myself without it, and it’s given me opportunities far beyond anything I ever imagined.”

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