The multi-alarm blaze that swept through five apartment buildings in Conshohocken’s Riverwalk at Millennium complex in August was a devastating wake-up call to the 375 people it displaced. It also served as a grim reminder that we all need to be more prepared for the life-altering impact of fire-related injuries.
One person who doesn’t need any reminding is Haverford’s Patricia (Patsy) Porter, president and CEO of the Burn Foundation in Philadelphia. As its most recent leader, Porter is charged with extending the reach of this tiny but invaluable organization. For 35 years, the foundation has offered support to the burn-care community, survivors and their families. In the last five years alone, it’s provided more than $1.8 million to Crozer-Chester Medical Center, Lehigh Valley Hospital, St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children and Temple University Hospital—all of which treat burn patients from more than 160 referring hospital emergency rooms in Southeastern Pennsylvania, Southern New Jersey and Delaware.
The foundation also plays an active role in raising funds for the city and region’s firefighters, hosting 10 or so golf outings each year, and spreads awareness about fire safety and prevention across the area. Other important contributions include funding of pressure garments—an expensive ($650-$1,000 per set) but necessary component to burn recovery—and scholarships to the Mid-Atlantic Burn Camp.
Since opening its doors in 1973, the foundation has had four strong leaders, including Peter Brigham, Cynthia Rauso and now Porter, who started as an interim replacement in 2007. After a national search, she was the last one standing.
Porter may not flaunt it, but she knows how to make a good first impression. With her stylishly short haircut, all-natural glow and polished presentation, she could easily hold her own in any corporate boardroom. The vice chair of Episcopal Academy’s board of trustees, she also chaired its marketing committee and the school’s parents association. Before coming to the area, she was a vice president at New York City advertising agency Benton & Bowles.
The fact that she’s landed at the Burn Foundation perhaps comes as a bit of a surprise, even to her. But in the end, it suits her roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-it-done character—something members of the Episcopal Academy community have observed over the years in her various leadership roles there.
Whereas a lot of folks are inspired to take on the seemingly endless responsibilities of running a nonprofit for personal reasons, Porter’s appointment came on the heels of the sudden death of Rauso. The transition happened so quickly that Porter didn’t have much time to question whether she was right for the job.
“I wasn’t working professionally at that point, but I was thinking about it,” says Porter. “I thought this was a good way to push myself off the diving board.”
Right off the bat, Porter was charged with writing a FEMA grant request (something she’d never done before) and finding a new home for the foundation. And now that she’s got her bearings, she goes about the duties of her new post with pride—a pride shared by her colleagues.
“Right away, Patsy came off as knowledgeable and very capable,” says Rev. Carol Gadsden, a burn survivor and member of the Burn Foundation’s board. “She’s a velvet hammer. Incredibly gracious. Able to galvanize people and move them ahead—without force.”
Gadsden adds that when Porter came in, the foundation hadn’t been putting enough emphasis on survivors. “Patsy sensed that immediately,” she says.
Porter also reached out to area firefighters. “[Firefighters] love the Burn Foundation,” she says. “Every one of them knows—or has seen—somebody that’s been burned. I’ve tried to give them a lot of attention this past year. After all, we have the same goal (zero fire deaths).”
According to FireSafety.gov, fires and burns are the fifth most common cause of unintentional injury deaths in the United States and the third leading cause of fatal home injury. The Philadelphia Fire Marshal’s Office reported 41 fire deaths in 2007—eight as a result of smoking, one from a portable propane heater, seven from open flames, five from electrical appliances, seven from cooking, five from nonpermanent wiring, five from children playing with matches, and three from incendiary fires (arson).
Scalding from hot liquids or steam is one of the most frequent—and avoidable—injuries. It’s most common in toddlers, one of the highest-risk groups for burn and fire wounds. Burns from direct flame, meanwhile, are more prevalent among older kids. Seniors also fall into the high-risk group, and they’re equally susceptible to hot-water burns in the tub or shower.
Younger children have thinner skin than adults, so it can burn at lower temperatures than you might expect—and more deeply. Water heated to 140 degrees can send a child to the emergency room with a third-degree burn. Arson is another culprit among older children and adults, as are chemical and electrical burns.
Because of the high incidence of avertable injuries, the Burn Foundation has put a lot of energy into bringing those numbers down. One of the most valuable services it provides to the community is its burn and fire prevention pamphlets aimed at children and parents. The staff has developed training for educators and a comprehensive lesson plan for use in preschool programs and elementary schools. They’ve also worked with PECO on a series of videos for electrical contractors. Other recent efforts have focused on seniors.
Promoting fire-safe cigarettes has been a priority for the foundation, which applauded state legislation that required all cigarettes sold in Pennsylvania be “fire safe” beginning Jan. 1, 2009.
“This is a big step, and one that came as a result of New York passing the legislation and the cigarette companies caving,” says Porter. “Now, we’re looking at other legislation for fire sprinklers and the elimination of lighters that resemble toys—i.e. rubber ducks, cell phones, etc.—which children mistake for playthings. While we’re not lobbying for legislation, we support things that eliminate burns and fires, and keep fire service personnel safer.”
Making a video for maternity wards is another of Porter’s goals. “It’s a really good time to capture new parents’ attention,” she says.
Since joining the team, Porter has made several personal contributions, including reorganizing the way the foundation does business without funding from FEMA. The foundation didn’t get the aforementioned grant. But they didn’t the year before, either, so Porter didn’t take it too hard. She’s also working closely with a public relations firm to further the foundation’s profile while focusing on improving programs for high-risk groups (senior citizens and preschoolers) and re-energizing longstanding advisory councils for nurses, fire services and survivors.
“It’s important to have accomplishments we can point to when we’re looking for financial support,” Porter says. “We need to be out there doing programs and making a difference to people. Right now, we’re seeking to focus our prevention education efforts and find more meaningful ways to engage volunteers.”
Amping up the Burn Foundation’s annual gala and generating a heightened level of excitement was a no-brainer for Porter, who added a couple of new twists for the October event: a guest appearance by Robin Gaby Fisher, author of After the Fire: A True Story of Friendship and Survival, and a one-in-100 chance to unlock a glass-encased diamond-and-sapphire bracelet with the purchase of a key.
“Raising money is always a challenge—especially in this [economic] environment,” Porter admits.
Another to praise Porter’s appointment is board member Cindy Reigart of Nathan Speare Regional Burn Treatment Center at Crozer-Chester Medical Center. “She has a tremendous background in fund raising that the Burn Foundation has desperately needed,” says Reigart. “She brings fresh ideas and a new level of excitement, and she’s great at networking. She’s done so much in the last year to rekindle our contacts in the community.”
Currently, the Burn Foundation is working with Peter’s Place in King of Prussia to start a program modeled after its grieving structure. Although it’s still in the early stages, Porter is excited about gaining visibility in the suburbs.
The foundation also provides scholarships to the Mid-Atlantic Burn Camp in Harrisonburg, Va.—a summer sanctuary where young burn survivors can adjust to their injuries while spending time with others just like them. The camp also provides year-round activities that support physical, psychological and social needs. But, ultimately, the most valuable thing it offers may be self-esteem.
Porter confesses that her schedule—particularly in the summer and early fall, when she’s involved with golf outings and gearing up for the annual gala—doesn’t afford her many opportunities to visit burn centers and talk with patients. But this summer, she did have the opportunity to escort burn camp kids home on the bus—and she got a firsthand impression of the camp’s positive impact.
“To be honest, I was a little apprehensive as to how I would react to the children,” Porter admits. “But I found I was pretty comfortable with them and admired their strength. They were just like any other kids after a week of bonding at camp. They were exhausted and just wanted to watch a movie, but they had obviously had a great time.”
The group ranged in age from 9 to 16, “and they all were comfortable with each other,” recalls Porter. “The experience seems very important, and many of the kids go every year and see friends from other places—just like any other camp.”
Although there is a national organization for burn patients and survivors, its services are not as readily available locally. “It’s really important to create a more local-feeling, approachable support group that has a personal touch,” Reigart says. “The benefit to us and to future burn victims is that, by talking with survivors and hearing about their experience receiving care, we can help get across how to make it better for other survivors.”
Porter agrees that both the Nurses and Survivors Advisory councils are vital to the foundation’s mission, as is continuity.
“This business is a lot about relationships. Our contacts within the fire services like to know the people they’re working with. They don’t want to have to take the time to teach a new person the ins and outs of burn care over and over again,” Porter says. “I was at Lehigh Valley Hospital yesterday and learned a great deal about burn care, but I also took up three hours of their time. The burn center personnel have remained very constant and want to be sure we have a consistent focus.”
Apparently, knowing what the Burn Foundation truly needs comes naturally to Porter.
“Patsy has not made one false move since she’s been here,” Gadsden says. “And it’s not because she’s being cautious. She’s very wise and can see the 50,000-foot view and the ground view at the same time. Most importantly, she asks the right questions.”
To learn more about the Burn Foundation, visit burnfoundation.org.
Each year, fire departments in our country respond to over 400,000 residential fires. Over 3,500 people die every year from fires in their own homes. The leading causes are cooking, heating, electrical malfunctions, careless smoking and candles.
1. Never leave the kitchen while cooking. Keep children and pets at least 3 feet away from hot surfaces.
2. Maintain heating equipment and chimneys with annual inspections and cleanings by a qualified professional.
3. If you smoke, do it outside and extinguish materials all the way, every time. Never smoke in bed, when drowsy or under the influence of alcohol or medications.
4. Do not overload electrical outlets, and check wires on appliances for wear and tear.
5. During an emergency, use flashlights, not candles. Try flameless candles for decorations.
6. Install smoke alarms on every floor of your home and outside every sleeping area. Test them monthly (unless they’re powered by 10-year lithium-ion batteries). Install carbon monoxide detectors.
7. Develop a home escape plan that includes two exits from every room, and choose a meeting place to ensure everyone’s safe escape. Practice the plan frequently, remembering that fires are dark, loud and smoky.
8. Keep exits free of clutter and combustibles, which can interfere with safe escape in an emergency.
9. Install fire sprinklers in homes where mobility-impaired people or infants reside.
10. Keep lighters, matches and accelerants away from children. Teach them about the dangers of fire-play.
Safety tips provided by the Burn Foundation’s Patricia Porter. For more information, visit usfa.dhs.gov/citizens/focus.