Every year more than 3,000 persons in the United States die from fires in their homes. Most of these deaths result from exposure to smoke rather than flames and occur at night when people are asleep. Unfortunately, many of these fires are caused by carelessness and could be prevented by attention to a few precautions.
Smoking and Matches
Smoking is the leading cause of fatal residential fires. If you must smoke, be extremely careful.
- Never smoke in bed or when feeling drowsy.
- Use only large, noncombustible ashtrays designed to prevent cigarettes from falling out.
- Use "safety" matches whenever possible, and keep them and lighters up high, preferably in a locked cabinet, out of reach of children.
- Keep "strike anywhere" matches in a covered metal container and out of the reach of children.
- Douse matches, butts or ashes with water before discarding.
Many fires stem from improperly operated or incorrectly installed heating equipment. Pushing an old heater beyond its capacity may give you heat, but it can also burn down your home. Have your heating system checked at least once a year by a qualified expert. Unless you are fully experienced, do not attempt any do-it-yourself jobs where heating is concerned. Call a professional.
With wood stoves and fireplaces, there are several potential hazards you should watch out for:
- All chimney connections should be inspected once a year. The connections should be tightly fitted and sealed at the joints. Chimneys should be inspected and cleaned at regular intervals, depending on the amount of use.
- A sturdy fire screen or heat-tempered glass doors should be kept in front of every fireplace.
- Proper clearance to combustibles must be maintained. Required clearances can be reduced using approved methods. Ask your fire department.
- Portable electric heaters and kerosene heaters present special hazards. Check with local authorities as to the legality of kerosene heaters in your community and buy only heaters that carry the label of an independent testing laboratory. Use them with care, follow the manufacturer's instructions, and keep them away from curtains, bedding, furniture and other combustible materials.
People use electrical appliances more than ever these days. Wiring and circuits must be able to carry the load of additional applications. Inadequate or frayed wiring has resulted in many tragic fires. If you frequently blow a fuse when you turn on an electrical appliance, heed this warning: Your circuits are overloaded. Do not try to put in a larger capacity fuse; have your wiring or circuit systems extended by an electrician.
- Unless you are a qualified electrician, do not attempt to install or extend your wiring yourself.
- Avoid extension cords. If necessary, have an electrician install additional wiring and outlets.
- Do not run extension cords under rugs, over hooks or through partitions and door openings where wires can become worn.
Cooking is the leading cause of home fires, and unattended cooking is the major culprit, so stay with the stove when cooking.
- Keep the stove clean and free of grease and other combustibles. In case of a grease fire in a pan, cover the pan with a lid to smother the fire and turn off the burner. Leave the pan until it is completely cold.
- Be sure window curtains cannot blow over or near the stove. Do not hang combustibles such as clothes or paper over the stove.
- Heat oils slowly, and try not to let food boil over.
- Instruct small children to stay at least three feet away from the stove.
- Wear short or tight-fitting sleeves when cooking, and always use oven mitts to protect yourself.
Safety Around the House
- Never leave oil-soaked rags lying about. After using, hang them outside to dry and then throw them away.
- Do not store gasoline, benzine, naphtha or similar solvents around the home. These flammable liquids give off vapors that can be ignited readily.
- Keep basement, attic and other storage areas clean of useless debris such as broken furniture, old clothes and rags. Keep everything three feet away from the furnace, space heater, and the water heater.
- Keep your yard free of leaves, debris and combustible rubbish.
Many fatal fires have resulted when young children were left unattended. When going out, always leave a responsible person in charge. Instruct young children and baby-sitters about what to do in case of fire.
Smoke Detectors, Fire Detectors and Extinguishers
Smoke detectors are your first defense against fire. When shopping for smoke detectors, purchase units that bear the label of an independent testing laboratory. Get competitive bids for installation of a system from at least two or three companies, so you can compare prices. Ask for names of former customers you may contact for references.
Beware of door-to-door sales representatives who try to use scare tactics to induce you to buy their systems. They may tell horror stories calculated to arouse parents to put in an expensive system to protect children from fire.
Beware also of someone who offers to install a system free in exchange for referrals. In such schemes, if other prospects you refer to the salesperson also purchase the system, you get yours free. But you may well find yourself with no referrals and having to pay the full price of an overpriced system. If you have any reason to doubt a firm's reputability, contact a Better Business Bureau.
There are two types of detectors to warn the family about fire.
- Smoke detectors sound an alarm at the first trace of smoke. They should be installed outside each bedroom area and on each additional story of the house. For extra protection, be sure to install smoke detectors inside the bedrooms, dining room, hallways.
- Heat detectors are not life safety devices. Heat detectors may be considered for added protection in kitchens, attics, basements, integral or attached garages, and furnace and utility rooms. Proper maintenance also is necessary to be sure the detectors are in working order. Follow the manufacturer's recommendations, check the equipment, and change the batteries on a regular basis.
It is a good idea to own at least one fire extinguisher. There are times when a small fire in the early stages can be fought successfully. But if you do not completely familiarize yourself with how to use your particular extinguisher, and on what type of fire it can be used, it can be dangerous to use. Read the instructions for your extinguisher and reread them from time to time. Ask your fire department how to use a fire extinguishers.
There are three basic classes of fire extinguishers. All fire extinguishers are labeled for the class they can extinguish. Type A is for ordinary combustibles or cellulose materials, such as wood. Type B is for combustible and flammable liquids, such as grease or paint. Type C is for fires in energized electrical equipment.
Fire extinguishers can be designed for use on one type of fire or on several. An extinguisher designated ABC will serve an average home and can be used on flammable liquid fires and electrical fires, and also can be used on wood paper or clothing fires. A good location might be in the kitchen, with an extra one in some other handy spot.
Look for an extinguisher tested by an independent testing laboratory. Both the class designation and the mark of laboratory testing should appear directly on the extinguisher. If you do not know what type of fire detector system or extinguisher would be best for you, you can obtain general advice from the fire protection unit of your local fire department. You can also contact the National Fire Protection Association, Batterymarch Park, Quincy, MA 02269.
Prepare an Escape Plan
No matter what precautions you may take to prevent a major fire you should still be prepared.
- Have an escape plan. Sit down with all members of your family and draw up a floor plan of your home. Figure out at least two exits from each room, especially bedrooms.
- If there are porch roofs outside upstairs windows, find out if it is safe to utilize them.
- All windows you need to use for exits should be able to be opened. If a window cannot be opened, plan to use a shoe or a chair to break the glass and to clear off jagged edges. Blankets can be thrown over the sill to protect against cuts. It is extra dangerous to drop from a window higher than the second floor. A noncombustible chain ladder may be indispensable for escape from upper stories.
Most fatal home fires begin in rooms other than the bedroom. Install smoke detectors inside bedrooms, as well as outside sleeping areas. Close the doors to bedrooms when you go to bed at night. Fire produces deadly heated gases and smoke that can kill you long before the flames reach you. A closed door will keep out gases and heat for some time if a fire should occur in another part of the house.
The simple procedure of closing your door can retard the spread of fire and give you much more time to escape, according to the National Fire Protection Association. If a fire should start inside a bedroom, a closed door can help to prevent its rapid spread to other rooms.
- Hold fire drills, sometimes at night, so that everyone knows exactly what to do. Speed is vital.
- Make provisions for elderly persons or very young children. Assign someone to help them out. Agree on a meeting place, outside, such as a tree in the front yard, where all must assemble after evacuation so that you will know the house is vacant. No one should reenter the house.
In Case of Fire!
- Do not attempt to put out the fire (unless you can see it is confined to a pot on the stove, for example, and you have a lid or an extinguisher handy).
- Get out of the house as rapidly as possible, and do not stop to collect belongings. Your life is more important than any possession.
- Do not stop to call the fire department. Your phone may already be inoperative, and you may lose your chance to escape.
- If you smell smoke at night, do not rush into the hallway. Put the back of your hand against the closed door. If the door feels cool, it should be safe to enter the hallway. Brace the door with your shoulder and cautiously open it. Place your hand across the opening to determine how hot the air is. If it feels cool and there are no flames or smoke pouring up the stairway, you may be able to use this means of escape.
However, if the door feels warm, do not open it; the hallway already may be filled with poisonous gases. Use your escape plan and get out quickly.
- After you escape, do not risk your life to attempt rescues or save belongings. Members of the fire department are much better trained and equipped to make rescues.
- Call the fire department from the fire alarm box nearest your home or from a neighbor's home. Then go to your predetermined meeting place.
Tips To Remember
- Install smoke detectors on every level of your home and outside the sleeping areas.
- Test smoke detectors once a month.
- Never smoke in bed or when drowsy.
- Be sure all matches and smoking materials are kept up high, (preferably in a locked cabinet) out of the reach of children.
- Have your heating system inspected at the beginning of each heating season.
- Exercise great care with portable and space heaters. Keep anything that can burn at least three feet away.
- Do not overload your electrical circuits.
- Be cautious when cooking and keep stoves clean and free of grease.
- Keep storage areas and your yard free of debris.
- Never leave young children unattended.
- Have an escape plan and practice it twice a year, especially at night.
- If fire strikes, first, get out of the house.
- Then, call the fire department.
- Stay out of the dwelling until firefighters say it is safe to go back in.