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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

When tragedy turns into awareness

Published: January 23, 2009
Section: Features

LIFE LESSONS: After the death of her brother, Marti Dembowitz '10 was determined to advocate for fire safety.<br /><i>PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot</i>

LIFE LESSONS: After the death of her brother, Marti Dembowitz '10 was determined to advocate for fire safety.
PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

Like any older brother, Seth Dembowitz used to rag on his younger sister Marti Dembowitz ’10 about her wardrobe. If Marti, or her little sister Abbe, 15, wore something he deemed too revealing or tight, his disapproving looks were sure to let them know.

Like many older brothers, Seth Dembowitz would slip any one of his four younger siblings a $20 bill on their way out for the night just in case they got in a jam.

Like any older brother would be, Seth Dembowitz is terribly missed by the family that meant so much to him. “Family was incredibly important to him and the people around him were important, and protecting them was a top, top priority so now it’s ours,” Marti said.

Jan. 29 will mark the one year anniversary of Seth’s untimely passing in a fire. The next day will mark the anniversary of the creation of The 243 Foundation, the Dembowitz family’s organization for the promotion of fire safety awareness.

It was around 2 a.m. nearly one year ago when a four-alarm fire broke out in the bedroom of one of Seth’s roommates in their Hoboken, N.J. apartment. As he later told Marti’s family, Seth’s roommate recalls waking up to hear Seth yelling to him that there was a fire and to get out.

According to Seth’s brother, Adam Dembowitz, one of Seth’s roommates climbed out his own window and jumped down to the next floor’s balcony where the fire department later rescued him. Seth, whose bedroom window had no balcony or fire escape below it, wasn’t able to escape since the fire was right outside of his door.

“Ironically the fire department was a block away,” Marti said, emotion filling her voice.

Seth’s former roommate, Brian Crimmins, just happened to be one of the on call firefighters at the time. In panning the foyer, Crimmins’ eyes stopped on Seth’s keys. He figured he’d just give them to his old friend later, Marti recalled. He ended up handing them to Seth’s family instead.

Marti got the phone call Tuesday. “It’s never something you expect to hear ever, and it’s never something I wish anybody would have to hear,” she said.

An autopsy showed that Seth died from carbon monoxide and smoke inhalation.

The next day, determined to prevent this type of pain from hitting another family, Marti and her three siblings founded The 243 Foundation in Seth’s memory and honor. Named after Seth’s fraternity “bond number,” The 243 Foundation promotes fire safety awareness.

Seth, a graduate of Rutgers University in his native New Jersey, was president of his school’s chapter of Phi Delta Theta International Fraternity and The 243rd member to be inducted into the chapter. For this he was assigned the “bond number” 243.

Photo of Seth Dembowitz<br /><i>COURTESY OF  Marti Dembowitz</i>

Photo of Seth Dembowitz
COURTESY OF Marti Dembowitz

Seth used this number for everything, so using this number as the namesake for The 243 Foundation was automatic for Seth’s siblings: “Initially it was like a way to respond and now it’s a way to help and it’s a way that we can really honor him,” Marti said.

Some of the foundation’s long-term goals include fire safety awareness and scholarships for members of fraternities, sororities and members of a Jewish youth group Seth was involved in. Since most fraternity houses nationwide lack fire safety apparatus, The 243 Foundation also hopes to equip all chapters of Seth’s fraternity with the appropriate devices.

Since it was an older building, the battery-operated smoke detectors in Seth’s apartment weren’t electrically connected to the fire department. and thus didn’t immediately notify them. It was Seth’s call to them from his cell phone that initially did so, Adam said. The hallway’s smoke detectors, which were connected to the fire department, later notified the fire department, but not until the fire had spread to the hallway and not until it was too late.

Carbon monoxide also poses an invisible but serious danger that often goes undetected in older buildings. Newer buildings are required to have carbon monoxide detectors, Marti said, and some manufacturers even make smoke detectors with carbon monoxide detectors built in that can be plugged into the wall.

Unplugging a smoke detector to use it as an outlet or covering a smoke detector to smoke in your room might seem harmless in the short-term. But it’s what you forget to do afterwards –uncover it or plug it back in –that causes a problem: “It’s that one night that something can happen,” Marti said.

Currently members of The 243 Foundation are writing bylaws and working towards getting accredited as a full nonprofit organization. In the future, they hope to find a sponsor such as Lowes or Home Depot to help supply enough smoke detectors to equip Seth’s building.

Last March, thanks to one of Seth’s best friends who worked for the New Jersey Nets basketball team, Seth was named as one of their “Hometown Heroes,” and a portion of the proceeds from group ticket sales at that night’s game was donated to The 243 Foundation. “It was very big for the organization but also a very big thing for us [his family],” Marti said.

Though the calendar is just shy of the one year anniversary of Seth’s passing and the pain is understandably still present, Marti and her siblings have used The 243 Foundation as an outlet for their grief. The smile in her eyes when remembering Seth’s overprotection may still turn into a cracked voice when recounting the details of his passing, but an interminable strength and a desire to continue her older brother’s legacy lie ever-present underneath.

While still working to raise awareness within the greater society, Marti soon realized she had an opportunity to do the same in her school community. As per Brandeis’ Rights and Responsibilities Handbook, students are prohibited from covering smoke detectors in residence halls. Flipping through the Justice last semester, Marti came across an article about fire safety hazards on campus and instantly “knew I had to do something about it.”

During fire drills in November, an increased number of students were found to have violated such fire safety regulations. After reading about this, Marti approached Director of Public Safety Ed Callahan to see what she could do about the issue.

Director of Student Development and Conduct Erika Lamarre met Marti last semester after Marti’s meeting with Callahan and has worked closely with Marti ever since, planning ways to further raise fire safety awareness at Brandeis.

“I’m blown away and so pleased to work with Marti. I value her perspective and I value her willingness to engage with the community on this issue… Her perspective is invaluable and I think totally different from most students’ perspective of fire safety,” Lamarre said. “As a peer I think that her voice is the one that should be heard above all others about this issue.”

Lamarre, who on average receives between 15 and 20 reports of fire safety violations a semester, said she found the widespread practice at Brandeis shocking when she first started working here. During the nearly three years she’s worked at Brandeis, Lamarre said, the numbers have remained steady but high.

This past winter break, Lamarre received approximately 15 reports of fire safety violations discovered during routine room checks.

Students found with covered smoke detectors go through the university’s conduct system and the likely outcome for such students is a recently imposed $150 fine, Lamarre said.

Students facing fines surely get a bit upset. Maybe there’s even been a bit of resentment within the community as of late. But that just might be missing the whole point, Lamarre said.

“I think that the conversation should be about the rights of students to be safe and about changing perspective. And I think some focus in the past has been about the inspections and the fines and it’s really not about that. It needs to be about the safety aspect of this,” she said.

Though she understands students’ anger, Marti shares Lamarre’s sentiments: “I’m a broke college student just like everyone and I wouldn’t necessarily want to be taught a lesson through a fine, but I think it’s effective to say this is something that you should value and this is something that the university values on your behalf.”

As little kids, Marti explained, students view fire safety with excitement, associating it with a fun visit from the fireman or a lively game of stop, drop and roll. But as children grow up into young adults, they often forget about the importance of fire safety. And as college students living in dorms, many forget that smoke detectors are installed for their safety and protection, not to cramp their style or prevent them from smoking.

But with middle of the night fire drills a staple of the dorm experience, it’s no wonder why students’ views of fire safety often turn from vigilance to vexation.

As a first-year student at Brandeis, someone burnt popcorn at 4 a.m. in Marti’s Cable hall, setting off the fire alarm and forcing the entire building to be evacuated.

Standing outside shoeless in the freezing February air, wearing only pajamas and clueless as to what was going on, residents were, needless to say, uncomfortable. “It was miserable and that’s frustrating, but colleges are well equipped for a reason,” Marti said.

“We not only take [fire safety precaution] for granted but we see it as an inconvenience, it stops us from making popcorn, it stops us from smoking…but what that does is it says safety is not a concern,” she said.

“You can smoke; that’s fine. You can make popcorn; that’s fine, but you can also do it in a way that is safe.”

Lamarre plans to expand fire safety awareness on campus this semester with Marti’s help. Plans are in the works for more programs around these issues and some smaller intimate events with Marti as a featured speaker. Marti also hopes to speak to community advisors and orientation leaders who will then be able to relay the message to their residents.

Fostering fire safety habits at an early age will help students realize the gravity of such situations when they move out of the confines of Brandeis, Marti said: “Ultimately your life is in your own hands and you can do very short, very small things to ensure that it can stay that way. And one of those things is to ensure that wherever you’re living is equipped [with smoke detectors].”

Fresh out of college and filled with many other concerns, many students might not think to ask their new landlords about smoke detectors in their apartments. One year ago, Marti says, she wouldn’t have either:

“I don’t know what I would [have done] when I graduated. I don’t think that would’ve been the first question I asked – it will be now.”