Each year, fire kills more people in America than all other natural disasters combined.* Yet we're inclined to think that fires only happen to other people...not to me, not to my home. Too often, people aren't concerned with fire safety until it's too late. But as any firefighter will tell you, the best way to fight fire is to prevent it. Because they know education is key to fire prevention, firefighters spend a lot of their time educating people about ways to safeguard our homes, our communities, and ourselves. This article is intended to support educational efforts by helping you plan and practice fire safety - at home, at work, and outdoors.
More than 80 percent of fire deaths occur in the home, most often claiming the lives of the young and the elderly.* Cooking, heating, and smoking are the leading causes of residential fires. The number of home fires increases significantly in the winter months, when people in cold climates spend more time indoors and place demands on kitchen, electric, and heating utilities. Unattended cooking, fireplaces, and portable heaters are a few of the more obvious factors contributing to wintertime home fires. Tragedies also result from human errors such as falling asleep while smoking, inadequate control of an open flame, failing to turn off cooking or electrical equipment, and placing combustibles (e.g., aerosol cans) and flammable objects too close to heat sources.
* National Fire Protection Association, 2008
Stove fires continue to be a major source of home cooking fires. While you may or may not be a good cook, you can always cook smart.
Follow this recipe for kitchen safety:
- Supervise children and the elderly at all times and monitor your own cooking just as closely.
- Keep the handles of pots turned inward so they don't hang over the edge of the stove.
- Avoid wearing loose sleeves while cooking; they can be ignited easily by a burner or a grease splatter.
- Clear your immediate cooking area of aerosol spray cans, combustible liquids such as alcohol or turpentine, and flammable materials (e.g., curtains).
- Never pour water on a grease fire. Water can cause the grease to splatter, burning you or spreading the fire. Instead, smother the flames. Do this by carefully sliding a lid over the pan or by throwing salt or baking soda on the flame. Then turn off the burner.
- Keep a fire extinguisher near the kitchen, approximately 10 feet away from the stove; learn how to use it properly.
- Use cooking appliances for cooking only, not to heat the home.
Safety should be the number one consideration when heating your home. Have your home's heating system checked annually by a qualified professional. Furnaces, fireplaces, wood stoves and their chimneys should be inspected and cleaned prior to the start of every heating season. Convenience and cost savings have increased the popularity of alternate, potentially dangerous, sources of heating (e.g., portable space heaters, kerosene heaters, and wood burning stoves). These devices must be used according to their instructions and with extreme caution. Keep children and pets away from all heating sources, and review the following suggestions for using alternate heat sources wisely.
Fireplaces and Wood Burning Stoves
- The floor immediately in front of a fireplace (approximately 3 feet) should not be covered with a rug or carpet.
- Allow enough clearance between a wood burning stove and combustible materials such as walls, floor coverings, ceilings, curtains, and furniture. A local home inspector or your city's planning and zoning department can tell you the code requirements for installing a wood burning stove where you live.
- A wood stove must be placed on an approved stove board to protect your floor from heat and hot coals.
- Make sure the flue is open before lighting a fire.
- Do not close the flue until a fire is completely out.
- Use a fireplace screen to prevent sparks that could ignite nearby objects.
- Never use gasoline or lighter fluid to start a fire.
- When lighting a gas fireplace, strike a match first, then turn on the gas.
- Burn only dry, seasoned wood; dispose of the cooled ashes in a closed metal container outside your home.
- Never leave a fire burning unattended in the fireplace.
Portable Space Heaters
- Allow at least 3 feet between the heating equipment and anything that is flammable.
- Never leave a heater on when you are not in the room or when you go to sleep. Do not leave children or pets unattended around any heating source.
- Don't use an extension cord with a portable heater. The current from the heater could melt the cord and cause a fire.
- Never accelerate the drying of clothes by placing them on top of a heater. Use a drying rack instead.
- Kerosene heaters are illegal in some areas. Check with local authorities before using one.
- Make sure the room has proper ventilation.
- Do not use any fluid that is not recommended for your heater. Refuel outside, and only after the heater has cooled down.
- Check the wick every couple of weeks during the heating season. If the wick is dirty, clean it according to the manufacturer's instructions.
- Since a kerosene heater has a constant open flame, it should not be used in a room where there are flammable solvents, aerosol sprays, gasoline or any type of oil.
Smoking is the leading cause of home fire deaths.* If you must smoke, be extremely careful and never smoke in bed or in a place where you may fall asleep. Discard cigarettes, cigars and their ashes after wetting them. Smoldering butts or ashes can ignite trash and outdoor brush.
* National Fire Protection Association, 2008
There are several other not-so-obvious sources of home fires. If you're a pack rat, your home may be at greater risk for a potential fire. Take some time to clear your cellar, attic, and other storage areas of all potential hazards. These include improperly stored papers, newspapers, magazines, rags, holiday decorations, flammable liquids, etc. Use special caution with flammable liquids, which should not be kept anywhere near heat sources. Store them in safety containers kept outside the house and garage, if possible, preferably in a separate storage shed with proper ventilation. Never bring even a small quantity of gasoline indoors.
Electrical. Many people do not understand how the electrical wiring in their home works. Each circuit breaker connects to one or more of the wall plugs (outlets) and light switches in your home. Every circuit is designed to provide a specific amount of electricity (e.g., 20 amps). If a circuit has too many lights and appliances on at the same time—requiring more electricity than the circuit was designed to provide—the circuit will be overloaded and the breaker will "trip," turning off electricity to that circuit. Some rooms that use a lot of electricity, such as your kitchen, may have several circuits. In these cases the plugs on one wall could be on a different circuit from the plugs on another wall.
Be careful not to let your circuits overload, and be on the lookout for electrical hazards in your home and at work. Most electrical fires are preventable by simply paying attention to how you're using electricity.
- Replace any extension cord that's frayed or worn.
- Be careful not to place rugs, furniture or other objects directly on top of an electrical cord.
- Do not plug an excessive number of devices (e.g., multiple extension cords) into an electrical receptacle.
- Use only light bulbs with wattage appropriate for the fixture.
- Use electric blankets according to the manufacturer's instructions.
- If wall receptacles, electrical wiring or lighting fixtures are working improperly, have a licensed electrician repair them.
- If a circuit breaker trips, immediately turn off some of the appliances in use on that line. If you cannot move some devices to another circuit, and the circuit remains overloaded, call a licensed electrician to remedy the problem.
All electrical equipment should display a testing lab's label, such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL), indicating testing and approval for safe use.
Clothes Dryer. When did you last pull your clothes dryer away from the wall to clean the areas behind and underneath it? When did you last clean the vent and exhaust hose of any accumulated dust and lint? Ideally, you should do this at least twice a year. The dryer's lint basket, however, should be cleaned after every use. Also, make sure that your clothes dryer is vented to the outside, not inside the house. Never put plastic, rubber, foam, or any synthetic fabric into your dryer or leave your home while the clothes dryer is running.
Candles. Candles certainly can add ambience to a room and they are essential on a birthday cake; however, like any other open flame, they present a potential fire hazard. Use caution and common sense whenever you burn candles, and remember to:
- Never leave a burning candle unattended, even for a short time. Extinguish all candles when leaving a room or going to sleep.
- Keep all burning candles up high and out of reach of children and pets.
- Don't allow children to keep or use candles in their rooms.
- Keep candles away from anything flammable such as curtains or paper products.
- Avoid putting candles in drafts to prevent rapid uneven burning and excessive dripping.
- Make sure that candles are placed on a sturdy piece of furniture, in a heat resistant holder that will not tip over.
Holidays are special times for celebrating a break from the rigors of the everyday world and enjoying special foods, customs, and traditions with family and friends. Stay alert and practice the safety measures listed below to help make your holiday memorable for the right reasons.
Fireworks. These thrilling spectacles, even sparklers, are best left to the experts. Burning as hot as 1200º F, fireworks are a cause of lacerations, amputations and blindness, as well as burns. You may think that you know what you're doing; so did many of the thousands who required emergency room treatment this year because they handled fireworks.
- Stay back at least 500 feet from professional fireworks displays.
- Treat all fireworks, even if they are legal for consumers, as suitable only for use by trained professionals.
- If you find fireworks, do not touch them; instead direct authorities to them.
- Leave any area where amateurs are using fireworks.
Barbecue Safety. Thousands of gas or charcoal grill fires occur each year in the U.S. These fires cost millions of dollars in property damage, cause serious injuries, and even result in fatalities. Whether you're grilling at home, at the beach or at a campsite, follow these outdoor safety-cooking tips:
- When using barbecue grills on decks or patios, leave sufficient space between grills and siding and eaves.
- Don't leave a lit barbecue grill unattended.
- Keep children and pets far away from grills.
- With charcoal grills, use only charcoal starter fluids designed for barbecue grills and do not add fluid after coals have been lit.
- With gas grills, be sure that the hose connection is tight and check it carefully for leaks. Soapy water applied to the outside of the hose will easily reveal any leaks.
- Always follow the manufacturer's instructions and have the grill repaired by a professional, if necessary.
Winter. Depending on where you live, chances are you spend more time indoors during the winter season. When it's time for indoor entertaining, whether it's a dinner party, Thanksgiving, or New Year's, you probably make that extra effort to make your home festive. However, a bit of caution and common sense is important, because nearly one third of all residential fires occur during the winter months. Use caution when decorating, particularly with paper products, dried flowers and candles. Keep flammable items and heat sources away from each other, and never burn gift-wrappings, a Christmas tree or branches in your fireplace.
If you celebrate the Christmas holiday and choose to have a live tree, make sure that you select one that's fresh and water it regularly. If you prefer an artificial Christmas tree, be sure it's labeled as flame retardant. Other Christmastime safety tips include:
- Keep decorative trees away from heat sources.
- Don't overload electrical circuits such as wall outlets and extension cords; follow manufacturer's recommendations for connecting light strings.
- Use only tested Christmas lights (e.g., UL).
- Unplug all Christmas lights when leaving the house or going to bed.
Smoke alarms. Smoke alarms are essential protection for every level in every home. They are moderately priced, and are your first line of defense in a fire. A working smoke alarm dramatically increases a person's chance of surviving a fire. You should install smoke alarms outside each sleeping area on every level of your home, including the basement. Test each alarm once a month by using the test button on the smoke alarm. It's also very important to install new batteries in a smoke alarm at least once a year and to replace smoke alarms after 10 years. Many wise homeowners change all smoke alarm batteries twice a year, when they change their clocks for Daylight Savings Time.
Fire extinguishers. Consider having a fire extinguisher mounted in the kitchen, garage, and workshop, preferably in close proximity to an exit. It's a good idea to get some training from your local fire department on how to use one. If there is a large or spreading fire, don't attempt to battle it with your fire extinguisher. Instead, get out of your home immediately and call the fire department from another location.
In a typical home fire, you may have as little as a few minutes to escape once the smoke alarm sounds. Knowing how to use those minutes wisely can make a life-saving difference. If you don't already have an evacuation plan in place, make one now and practice it regularly, involving all family members. The following suggestions will help get you started:
- Plan at least two different escape routes from each room in your home. Make sure every family member knows how to get out, where to go and what to do.
- In a fire, time is critical. Don't spend it getting dressed or searching for sentimental objects or valuables.
- If the smoke alarm sounds, roll out of bed staying low to the ground. One breath of smoke or gas may be enough to kill.
- If a door feels warm, do not open it; escape through another door or window. As you exit, close all doors behind you to slow the spread of fire and smoke.
- Commit to memory the emergency number of the local fire department and display it near the telephones. But remember, if fire threatens your home, don't call the fire department from inside your house. Get out and immediately place the call from a safe location outside your home.
- If an escape ladder is part of your evacuation plan, be sure everyone in the house knows how to use it.
- Select a location in front of your home where everyone agrees to meet if fire breaks out.
Fire safety in the workplace is just as important as fire safety in the home. Review the following workplace fire safety checklist to make sure your work environment meets basic safety conditions and that you're prepared in case of an emergency.
- Know the fire escape route at work. Each workplace building must have at least two means of escape, remote from each other, to be used in a fire emergency.
- Fire doors must not be blocked or locked when employees are in the building.
- Exit routes must be clear, free of obstructions, and properly marked with signs designating exits from the building.
- Only approved fire extinguishers are permitted for use in the workplace. They must be kept in good operating condition and should be used only by employees trained to do so.
- Emergency action plans are required. Plans must describe the routes to use and procedures employees must follow.
- Automatic sprinkler systems throughout the workplace are the most reliable means of early fire suppression. The sprinkler system detects the fire, sounds an alarm, and puts the water where the fire and heat are located.
* Source: Occupational Safety Health Act (OSHA) Fact Sheet
Although high temperatures, low humidity, and low rainfall increase the possibility of woodland fires, they are generally considered unpredictable. Wildfires can occur anywhere in the country, at any time, often with little warning. Sometimes they start because of human carelessness, such as improperly extinguished campfires or lit cigarettes tossed from a car; other times they can be the result of lightning. Because they tend to occur in remote areas, wildfires often begin unnoticed, and can spread quickly, making them difficult to control. Not only do wildfires threaten homes and human lives, they also harm the environment, killing wildlife, trees, and foliage.
If you live or vacation in an area that is prone to wildfires, there are a number of steps you can take to reduce risk and protect your family and yourself, even before a wildfire gets started. Before heading out on a hike or to camp, become educated on safety techniques. If you live in or near a wildland setting, practice the home safety suggestions previously mentioned in this article and consider these additional pointers:
- Regularly clean roof surfaces and gutters of pine needles, leaves, branches and other debris to avoid accumulation of flammable materials.
- Remove portions of any tree extending within 10 feet of the flue opening of any stove or chimney.
- Maintain a screen constructed of nonflammable material over the flue opening of every chimney or stovepipe.
- Landscape vegetation should be spaced so that fire cannot be carried to the structure or surrounding vegetation.
- All combustibles such as firewood, picnic tables, boats, etc. should be kept away from your home.
- Keep fire tools handy (shovel, rake, water bucket), and have a preconnected garden hose long enough to surround your home and a ladder long enough to reach the roof.
- Make sure your address is clearly labeled on your mailbox and at the main entrance to your home.
It's important you understand your homeowners insurance policy before a fire occurs. Read your policy carefully. A basic insurance policy covers perils, which include specifically named risks such as fire and smoke.
It will be easier to file an insurance claim if you have a complete written inventory of your property, including serial numbers, photographs or videos. After a fire it's almost impossible to remember everything you lost. Keep your inventory and photographs or videos in a safe place away from home (e.g., in a safety deposit box), along with supporting receipts, bills and canceled checks.
Home is supposed to be the place where you feel safest. If your home needs new or replacement smoke alarms or fire extinguishers, don't wait any longer to purchase them. If you can't remember the last time you practiced a fire drill with your children or just looked around your home and yard—really looked—to see if it is indeed a fire-safe environment, do it now. Act responsibly, and instruct your children on fire safety prevention measures and the steps to take if a fire occurs. Let this article be your starting point, but contact your local fire officials for more detailed information.
Stop Drop and Roll (A Book about Fire Safety)
by Margery Cuyler and Arthur Howard
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing
Consumer Information from the Federal Government
The quarterly Consumer Information Center Catalog lists more than 200 helpful federal publications. For your free copy, write: Consumer Information Catalog, Pueblo, CO 81009, call 1-888/8-PUEBLO (1-888/878-3256) or visit www.pueblo.gsa.gov.
The National Fire Protection Association is a leading advocate of fire prevention and an authoritative source on public safety.
Risk Watch® is an injury prevention program designed for use in classrooms. The site is loaded with useful information on injury prevention and fire safety, among other safety topics.
Tips from the U.S. Fire Administration on fire safety.
Firewise, part of the national Wildland/Urban interface fire program, aims to help protect people, property and natural resources from the risk of wildland fires.