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AUBURN — Armed with bright blue buckets and green fabric bags, a small group of college students, firefighters and health officials meets in the streets of Auburn each week with one question on their minds: How safe is your home? 

The group of around 10 people has spent its summer hanging signs and knocking on doors with the goal of creating safer, healthier homes in Cayuga County through the Healthy Neighborhoods Program.

The program started three years ago, when the Cayuga County Health Department was awarded a five-year grant from the state Department of Health.The grant — facilitated by the Cayuga Community Health Network — pays $155,000 a year to cover salaries, travel and supplies for three census tracts of Auburn, all of Locke and all of Moravia. 

"Our program is not income-based at all," Program Coordinator Anne O'Connor said. "The only reason we go to the three census tracts that we do is because of the age of the homes."

When the program began, O'Connor often canvassed neighborhoods herself, lugging those buckets of supplies door to door. Then the Auburn Fire Department spared three or four firefighters to accompany her with gas and carbon monoxide meters. And now, this summer, the program has hired five local college students to help assess more homes. 

They start by placing door hangers the week prior to notify residents when they're coming to canvas their neighborhood. 

"We don't want people to think that we're selling something or that we're going to come back and bug them later, because that's just not our intention," O'Connor said. "We just want to make sure everybody is safe in their home."

Still, that doesn't mean the homeowner will let them in. According to O'Connor, the program has canvassed 843 houses since May; only around 200 of those homes were actually assessed. 

"We've gone to some homes where people say, 'Nope, I've got everything,' and they close the door," she said. "The thing is they think that they have everything, but they probably (don't). Nine times out of 10 we walk in the homes and they either don't have enough smoke detectors or they don't have them in the right places." 

Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are one of the first things firefighters check during an assessment. If any detectors are not functioning properly, or if there aren't enough, the program will add or replace them at no cost to the resident.

According to the Auburn Fire Department, there should be a smoke detector in every sleeping space, hallways outside sleeping areas and the basement; detectors should not be placed in the kitchen or laundry room, or on any external walls with windows. 

"You want to have any smoke detectors or carbon monoxide detectors on the ceiling or within the first 5 inches of the crease where the ceiling meets the wall," O'Connor added. "Nothing at the baseboard, because what happens is the smoke comes up and it curls and it hits that crease. So by the time it hits at the baseboard, it's too late." 

Next, firefighters and students check the homes for gas leaks, lead, fire and injury hazards and indoor air quality, looking for things like mold, mildew and chipped paint — anything that might affect a person's health, Cayuga County Health Department Senior Public Health Educator Kimberly Abate said.

"People often don't know what to look for and aren't aware of some dangers in their home," she said. "And we talk to them about how to remedy any problems we may find."

Since May, firefighters discovered 12 gas leaks while canvassing homes in Cayuga County. In each case, NYSEG was immediately called and the gas issue was rectified, Abate said. 

After home checkups, which typically take 15 to 30 minutes, residents are given a blue bucket filled with basic cleaning supplies. In addition, families may get a green fabric bag of free items based on their needs, including nightlights, child safety locks and first aid kits.

This summer, the program will continue canvassing neighborhoods through mid-August. However, residents in the covered areas can schedule appointments for home visits year-round. 

"We want to get inside and see what's going on," O'Connor said. "See if there's anything that we can do. And if we can't do it, try to figure out a way that we can help."

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Staff writer Megan Blarr can be reached at (315) 282-2282 or megan.blarr@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @CitizenBlarr

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