House fires are shocking, devastating events. Here in the south, after an especially mild December, we are cranking up the space heaters and smudge pots and piling on the logs now that freezing temperatures have finally arrived. We know the risks, but we have to get warm. The rest of the country has already had its share of bone-chilling weather. And with these dropping temperatures, of course, come the fires. No matter how sophisticated we imagine we are, no matter how clever our apps and snazzy our phones, fires still ravage our homes and lives every year, too often with the deadliest of consequences.
Do you know what to do in case a fire breaks out in your son’s bedroom? Do your children? Have you an elderly family member or friend living alone? Are they prepared for the surprise and the smoke and the panic? Have you and yours reviewed any fire safety practices lately?
- Be sure to have them. It is reported that a working smoke alarm reduces the risk of dying in a fire by 60%! They are inexpensive, available nearly everywhere and really simple to maintain.
- Install them correctly. You need one on each floor of the house, particularly inside and outside of sleeping areas (in the bedrooms and also in the nearby hallway or landing, for example).
- Maintain and inspect regularly. Safety experts suggest that you dust and test each alarm once a month. Change the batteries at least once a year. Replace the alarm itself every 8-10 years.
- Place them where they are readily accessible. Keep them close at hand, in as many rooms as possible. Be sure everyone knows where they are.
- Maintain the extinguishers. Replace or recharge them as needed. Mark your calendar or set a reminder in your phone with their expiration dates.
- Be sure you all know how to use the things! This seems obvious, but the truth is, most of us have never actually used a fire extinguisher. The best advice is to buy a small, cheap extra one and practice using it (outside, of course). Read the directions, find the safety, figure out how to disarm it. Get comfortable with it.
- After 20 seconds, GET OUT OF THE HOUSE. If you haven’t extinguished the fire in 20 seconds, get out and call 911.
Common Sense Electrical Safety
- Do not overload the electrical system. Do your very best of avoid using extension cords; plug each appliance into its own outlet.
- Have the wiring inspected. The general recommendation is that you have the house wiring inspected by a professional electrician at least once every ten years. And be sure to make any suggested repairs or upgrades.
- Use CFGIs. In rooms where water may be present, have an electrician install ground fault circuit interrupters.
- Maintain holiday lights. Before you hang any holiday lights, be sure to inspect them for wear, major kinking, fraying, bare spots, broken or cracked sockets and the like.
- Inspect and clean annually. Have your heating system and all chimneys professionally inspected and cleaned each year. Never, ever store fuel for any heating device or equipment in the house. Always keep fuel outside, well away from house, or in a detached shed or storage building.
- Keep all combustibles away from the fireplace. All logs pop and send sparks as far a three feet – even gas logs. So keep all carpets, curtains, drapes, decorations and the like far away from the fireplace. Think of three feet (3′) as the minimum distance away. This includes Christmas stockings (take them away from the mantle before going to bed or leaving the house).
- Use ember screens. Open fireplaces are gorgeous but require constant supervision. Tempered glass doors and a raised hearth (9 to 18 inches high) are a really smart idea. And keep the ember screen in place even when the fire is out. Clean out any embers before you go to bed for the night. Transfer the embers to a metal bucket with a lid and take them outside and leave them there – well away from the house. This takes only a minute or two to organize and is well worth the tiny bit of extra effort.
- Give them plenty of space. We all know these heaters are a blessing when needed, but that they are also seriously dangerous. Literally hundreds of fires start each year when some innocent burnable thing – some curtains or a towels or a t-shirt – gets a little too close to the fireplace, space heater, furnace, wood stove or water heater. It only takes a moment, but suddenly the flames are everywhere. Respect that 3-foot zone and let nothing come any closer than that to any side of a space heater of any sort.
- Never, ever use an extension cord with a space heater. Period.
The Escape Plan
- Plan ahead. Locate and identify two ways to escape from each room in the house. If smoke or flames block one way out, use the other. Experts suggest practicing the escape plan several times a year. Designate a safe location away from the house where everyone can meet immediately after escaping. Plan to work with the family or group as a team and assign responsibilities to each member.
- No keys needed. Windows and doorways should open readily and unlock easily from the inside, without keys.
- Escape ladders. Stored under the beds when not needed, or very close by, escape ladders should be on hand for all rooms above ground-level. Most brands hook onto the window sills, and are opened by pulling away a Velcro strap. Be sure everyone knows how they are to be used (practice if necessary).
- Keep escape routes clear of clutter. You already know that stairways and doorways should never be blocked. Be sure to regularly pick up clutter that threatens to make impassable any corridors or other passageways. Keep furniture from blocking doors or windows.