CHAPARRAL, NM — The majority of homes in this unincorporated border community of 16,000 are moveable structures — an affordable option in a location where, according to U.S. Census data, the median household income from 2016 to 2020 was $31,186 and the per capita income was less than $18,000.
Yet, for several reasons, mobile homes also pose an increased risk of loss of accommodation, injury and death from fire. The materials used to build them, the size of the trailers and internal parts, the lack of heating and cooling systems as well as potential vulnerabilities in the electrical wiring all contribute to the rapid consumption of homes in the event of a fire.
Additionally, the community straddles Doña Ana and Otero counties with volunteer firefighters on call on either side of the county line. The next option, if Chaparral volunteers are not available, is to wait for Anthony’s firefighters to arrive. Any delay in response diminishes the chances of saving a home and possibly lives.
A team of four Chaparral Middle School students, all 14 years old, researched the problem and came up with a product that could at least speed up emergency response and buy precious minutes: a solar-powered electronic alarm system low-cost device that simultaneously notifies nearby residents and fire department of fires, smoke, or gas buildup in the home.
“Profitability was a big part of this project because it was designed for a low-income community,” student Josue Salais said in an interview alongside his teammates, dressed in matching collared shirts and blue ties.
Their research and a working prototype secured Chaparral Middle School its fourth win in the annual MESA USA Engineering Design Competition, under the mentorship of math teacher and MESA advisor Rina Viramontes.
The MESA School Program offers K-12 after-school programs in nine states and holds statewide competitions culminating in a national competition. In June, the national competition, which was held virtually, saw two New Mexico schools that have previously won the competition: Albuquerque Magnetic School Nex + Gen Academy won first place in the high school division while that Chaparral dominated the middle school division.
The theme for the 2022 competition was “Designing for Equity in Your Community”, challenging students to research inequality in their home community and design a technology or other engineering solution.
The prototype alarm, built by student David Garcia, consists of a white box a few centimeters high, attached to a solar battery. Alessandro Marentes has coded an app that communicates with the alarm, alerting its owner that the alarm has detected a threat.
In a demonstration, the alarm triggered an alert when a flame was present, and Marentes said the system could adapt to preferences, such as sending a silent alert to the homeowner when it detected a flame. smoke while cooking rather than sounding an alarm and calling for emergency response.
Student Jessica Lara led the research on firefighter response times and mobile home concentration in the Chaparral housing stock included in the team’s presentation. Josue Salais, meanwhile, helped develop the technology and market test it with an adult customer who tried the alarm in her home.
Although the system can bypass notifications for customers who do not own a cell phone or other device, students said that even in this low-income community, mobile devices are an essential item owned by most residents. The project went through several iterations in the year leading up to the June competition, as students aimed for the most affordable version of a potential product.
While the entire team has graduated from high school or college, Viramontes said the school year beginning in August will begin with a new recruiting effort for the MESA program. Although students can participate in several competitions from the sixth year, the team inevitably loses talent upon graduation.
“Every year we have to start over,” she said.