The family of a college student who died in a Madison house fire pressed the importance of fire safety at a press conference last Friday, 15 years after his death.
In 2007, Peter Talen, a theater major at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, was visiting his brother in Madison when a fire broke out at his brother’s home at 123 N. Bedford St. While all other residents were able to escape, Peter Talen died in the fire.
The two-story house that caught fire had only one working fire alarm, and the other four had their batteries removed or were disabled.
Andy Talen, Peter’s brother, said fire safety is rarely priority for college students.
“College kids are college kids, and they're not thinking about those things,” Andy Talen said. “There were definitely a couple on top of the fridge with no batteries in them cluttered with mail. We didn't view that as important.”
The City Council unanimously approved a smoke alarm ordinance named in Peter Talen’s honor in 2009, according to Ruckriegel. The ordinance requires homes to have tamper-resistant fire alarms on both sides of the bedroom door equipped with 10-year lithium batteries. Under the ordinance, landlords must provide new tenants with fire safety education.
Patty Talen, Peter’s mother, said during the press conference that Peter Talen’s story has helped others avoid a similar tragedy.
“It is humbling to know that the ordinance known as the Peter Talen Smoke Alarm Ordinance has, in fact, helped to prevent this type of tragedy from ever happening again,” Patty Talen said. “Stuff can be replaced, but lives cannot.”
Patty Talen said the ordinance was a positive step forward in improving fire safety.
“Madison was well ahead in getting a more progressive ordinance,” she said. “They were on the cutting edge of getting things the way they should be.”
The ordinance drastically reduced fire fatalities in Madison, according to Fire Marshall Ed Ruckriegel. The city reported five fire fatalities in 2007 alone, according to Ruckriegel. In the last 15 years, there have been only eight.
“Smoke alarms are a very effective tool at saving lives,” Ruckriegel said.
Andy Talen said raising awareness among college students is important, but landlords should be held accountable for ensuring their buildings’ smoke alarm systems continue to function properly.
“It's hard to get college kids aware of those types of things, so having the landlords on the hook for that type of thing is helpful,” Andy Talen said. “It's avoidable by just making sure these are functional.”
Ruckriegel said the next step in improving fire safety involves installing fire sprinklers in buildings.
“We know that fire sprinklers are by far the most effective means to reducing fire loss and fire fatalities,” Ruckriegel said. “Fire sprinklers protect property, life and the environment.”
In addition to the fire safety ordinance, the Talen family continued to honor Peter Talen’s legacy by creating two endowment funds to support other theater majors and arts programs.
Tim Talen, Peter’s father, said he is proud to see positive change come out of a family tragedy.
“Out of what happened to us, something good happened for a lot of other people,” Tim Talen said. “If there’s any silver lining to it, that’s it.”
Francesca Pica is the city news editor for The Daily Cardinal. She has covered multiple municipal elections and is a leading reporter on Madison labor issues. Additionally, she will serve as a news intern for The Capital Times throughout the summer of 2023.