Lasting legacy: City woman’s death 30 years ago spurred smoke detector bylaw

Sarnia fire prevention officer Dave Potts, left, with Bev Stratton and Phil Egan, who lost their sister in a fire 30 years ago. France’s Egan’s death sparked a campaign that resulted in Sarnia passing a mandatory smoke detector law. Glenn Ogilvie

Cathy Dobson

Thirty years after a tragic house fire took the life of a young Sarnia woman, her memory lives on thanks to her family’s determination to improve local fire safety.

Twenty-four-year-old Frances Egan came from a big family that included her parents, June and Joseph, and 10 children.

She had moved to an apartment on Davis Street just weeks before it caught fire on Jan. 25, 1985. There was no smoke alarm to wake her.  Faulty wiring was to blame.

“She was a young woman just starting out,” recalled her brother, Phil. “Thirty years later, I still can’t talk easily about it.”

Another brother said Frances taught him to read and nurtured a lifelong love of the printed word.

“I still miss her every day and it hurts to think she could still be here if her home had only been equipped with a working smoke detector,” said Paul Egan, now a political affairs reporter with the Detroit Free Press.

Frances’ death galvanized the family.

A foundation was set up to raise money for smoke alarms, which were distributed to hundreds of Sarnia homes.  Firefighters, electricians and family members installed the devices for seniors and others who lacked resources.

The family wrote pamphlets explaining why smoke alarms save lives and urging homeowners to get equipped. With the help of city hall and local boy scouts, brochures were delivered to 22,000 Sarnia homes.

Joe Egan dedicated a great deal of time to educating the community, said son Phil.

“Dad went into the schools to talk to the kids. And he pushed to make smoke alarms mandatory in Sarnia.

“We just didn’t want it to happen to another family.”

France’s parents were named to Sarnia Mayor Marceil Saddy’s honour list for their remarkable crusade.

Along the way, the Egan family became allies of Sarnia’s firefighters, pushing successfully to get a municipal smoke alarm bylaw passed and to keep the East Street fire hall open when it was threatened with closure.

Even 30 years later, that relationship remains strong. On the anniversary of France’s death last week, family members arrived at the East Street fire hall with a meal for the men on duty.

“We wanted to thank the firefighting fraternity for their service and to express the family’s appreciation for their efforts to save (our) sister’s life,” Phil said.

Frances Egan’s legacy is unusual, said Sarnia Fire Prevention Officer Dave Potts.

“This is a case where the family took on a lot of work so no one else would suffer. The Egans have been key in the fight to get awareness raised in our community about smoke alarms.”

City smoke alarm use jumped to 80% from 60% in the year following Frances’ death, and Sarnia passed a bylaw making smoke alarms mandatory.

It wasn’t until years later, in 1997, that Ontario followed suit, Potts noted.

“At a time when it wasn’t prevalent, the Egans were really strong advocates of smoke alarms and took it to a whole new level,” said Mayor Mike Bradley, a family friend and council member at the time of the fire.

“They took a tragedy that ended a young woman’s life and turned it into a positive.”