Remembering Peter Talen and the Lessons We Learned
How Tragedy Inspired a Stronger Smoke Alarm Ordinance
15 years ago today, tragedy struck at 123 N. Bedford Street, where a fire broke out on the porch as four people slept inside. There was only one working smoke alarm in the two-story house. Four other smoke alarms in the house had their batteries removed or were disabled. As a result, the occupants were unaware of the fire growing just outside their front door.
Peter Talen, a UW-La Crosse student visiting his brother in Madison, died in the fire. Talen’s death prompted an overhaul of the City of Madison's smoke alarm ordinance, now named in his honor. The ordinance now requires homes to be equipped with tamper-resistant alarms powered by 10-year lithium ion batteries.
On this solemn anniversary, the Madison Fire Department and the Talen family ask everyone to check their smoke alarms. Make sure your model meets the requirements of the Peter Talen Memorial Ordinance. Mount your smoke alarms in and outside of every bedroom or sleeping area, as well as on every floor.
“Every day we carry on Peter’s legacy by reminding people not to tamper with their smoke alarms; to use proper ash trays and put cigarettes all the way out; to know two ways out of a room, no matter where you are; and to get out as soon as you hear the smoke alarm,” said Patty Talen, mother of Peter Talen. “Simple acts like these can prevent another tragedy from affecting your family.”
Talen’s death was the fifth fire fatality in Madison in 2007. The unprecedented number of fire-related deaths that year spurred efforts to update and enhance the city’s smoke alarm ordinance. The Peter Talen Memorial ordinance, championed by Alder Mike Verveer, District 4, passed unanimously in the Madison Common Council in 2009 and took effect August 15, 2010.
“The Peter Talen Memorial Ordinance is as relevant and important today as it was 15 years ago,” said Alder Mike Verveer. “Having this ordinance in place has made a profound impact on the safety and wellbeing of our community. We live with greater assurance that our homes, apartments, and dorms are equipped with working smoke alarms; the absence of this ordinance would have potentially tragic consequences.”
Since 2007, downtown Madison has seen a boom in the construction of high-rise residential buildings. All of these buildings are protected by automatic fire sprinklers. Requiring new buildings to be equipped with these lifesaving systems, and encouraging property owners to retrofit older buildings, is paramount to saving lives, property, and the environment. Automatic fire sprinklers have undoubtedly contributed to the low number of fire-related injuries and deaths in our city in recent years.
“Sprinklers catch a fire before it grows out of control and often extinguishes the fire before firefighters arrive,” said Fire Marshal Ed Ruckriegel. “Whether you own or rent, choose a home that’s protected by automatic fire sprinklers.”
To commemorate the 15th anniversary of Peter Talen’s death, the Talen family convenes in Madison to spread the word about fire safety to today’s students on the UW-Madison campus.
“We continue to share this message in Peter’s honor, here and across the state of Wisconsin,” Patty Talen said. “It is our hope that people, especially young people, will remember this tragic story and take steps to ensure it never happens again.”
Learn about Peter Talen’s story and get more fire safety tips on our website.
- Bernadette Galvez, Community Education Officer, (608) 279-7168, firstname.lastname@example.org