Every year, house fires claim the lives of over 2,500 people and cause around $7 billion in damage. While house fire deaths are dropping (largely due to fire safety awareness), it’s still a number that is far too high for something so often preventable.
When it comes to household fires, heroics don’t start with firefighters, they start at home with you. Keep in mind that when discussing this topic, awareness is not enough. To read the following tips and do nothing is a disservice to your family and home. By taking action with the tips below, you can increase the odds of making sure that a firefighter never has to risk his life running into your burning home, and that if he does, your family will be safe and sound outside.
Fire Safety Equipment
Fire alarms are far and away the number one lifesaver when it comes to fires in the home. In fact, two-thirds of all fire deaths occur in homes with either no working smoke alarm, or no alarm period. In many cases, deaths are the result of an alarm not working properly, most often due to issues with the battery (no battery, dead battery, not connected properly).
Fire alarms seem like such a small part of your home and get all too easily overlooked, but they’re perhaps the most important pieces of hardware in your abode. Utilizing the following tips will drastically reduce the chances of a deadly fire in your home:
- There are two types of alarms: ionization (better at detecting “flaming” fires) and photoelectric (better at detecting “smoldering” fires). Ionization is the most common, as it’s cheaper and can detect minute amounts of smoke. Your absolute safest bet is to get a dual sensor alarm that utilizes both technologies.
- Make sure alarms are installed in every bedroom, and outside every sleeping area. Also be sure there’s at least one on every floor, including the basement.
- Test your alarms (all of them!) monthly by hitting the “test” button. If the alarm doesn’t work, first replace the battery and try again. If it still doesn’t work, replace the entire alarm.
- Replace the batteries in all your smoke alarms once a year. If an alarm starts chirping with a low battery signal, replace it immediately; don’t just disconnect it in hopes that you’ll remember to do it later.
- Replace the alarm itself every 10 years or when the “test” button fails, whichever comes first. When replacing units, fire officials recommend installing alarms powered by sealed-in, long-life batteries. You’ll never hear the low battery chirp again and never have to worry about your alarms being disabled and unable to sound in an emergency during the 10-year life of the alarm.
- Do not disconnect when cooking. Cooking is the leading cause of home fires, especially around the holidays when ovens and stovetops are used all day long. If the alarm goes off, the tendency can be to just disconnect it for the time being. Instead, turn on your range fan, put a fan near the alarm, open windows, etc.
- Think about every member of your family. If someone in your household is deaf or hard-of-hearing, get an alarm that has a strobe light option. You can also get vibration options if those don’t work. Also be sure that the extra-heavy sleepers will wake up when an alarm goes off.
If your home has a basement with window wells, or is any higher than just a single story, you’ll want fire escape ladders on hand.
For window wells, they are generally just a basic metal ladder, 4-5 feet tall, that plants in the ground a few inches, and hooks over the well. Have one for each occupied room of a basement.
Ladders for levels that are higher up come with a little more variety. Use the tips below to ensure you get ones that are right for your family:
- One of the most important features to look for is the presence of “standoffs.” These are small protrusions that hold the ladder rungs away from the house. This provides stability and adequate space for the foot to move down without slipping. The more standoffs, the better.
- There are two standard length ranges: 13-15 feet and 23-25 feet. The shorter models are for second-story rooms, and the longer for third-story rooms. If you have four or five stories, there are ladders available for those as well.
- Make sure it’s been load tested for at least 1,000 pounds, and is clearly marked as such.
- It’s recommended to have one in every occupied room above the main floor. Store them next to potential escape windows, and be sure whoever occupies the room is able to use it properly and efficiently. Have your kids test going down the ladder.
- If you have guest rooms, be sure to have ladders there as well, and inform guests of their presence. This goes for both higher levels and basements.
Having fire extinguishers in your home and knowing how to use them is a crucial part of your home’s emergency plan. While it can be tempting to use an extinguisher for any fire in your home, you have to be aware of the fact that they should really only be used for fires that are very small and contained — for example in a wastebasket or a small fire in a pot on the stovetop. The number one priority is still the safety of everyone in the home, so if a room begins to quickly fill with smoke, exit the house immediately and don’t try to be the hero.
You should have at least one fire extinguisher on every level of your home. They should be placed in the rooms with the highest probability of a fire — the kitchen especially, and the garage as well. While there are multiple classifications of extinguishers, the variety that are classified as “ABC” will be fine for the majority of homeowners’ needs. We dedicated an entire post last year to using extinguishers, so be sure to read up for more information.
While it’s true that using a fire extinguisher isn’t rocket science there are a few basics you need to be aware of – and probably aren’t. According to FEMA, the majority of Americans don’t know how to use an extinguisher, even if they have one in their home. This is a dangerous knowledge gap. Fires double in size every 60 seconds, so you don’t want to be fumbling around in an emergency situation, reading over the instruction manual as a small flame on the stove grows into an inferno:
- First, determine if the fire is one you can handle with your extinguisher. If it’s taller than you, or the room is filled with smoke, get everyone out of the house.
- Position yourself with your back to an escape, so you can make a quick getaway if necessary. Don’t back yourself into a corner with just an extinguisher in hand.
- Pull the pin.
- Aim the nozzle at the base of the fire. Hitting the tops of the flame with the extinguisher won’t be effective. You’ve got to smother the sucker at its base.
- Squeeze the trigger. In a controlled manner, squeeze the trigger to release the agent.
- Sweep from side to side. Sweep the nozzle from side to side until the fire is put out. Keep aiming at the base while you do so. Most extinguishers will give you about 10-20 seconds of discharge time.
Should a fire break out in your home and the smoke alarm goes off, you need to have a well-rehearsed escape plan. You may have as little as 30 seconds to get out of a burning home, so you can’t waste a single second dawdling around trying to figure out which way to go or where to meet your family. Forty-two percent of homes do not have an escape plan, so if you haven’t done so already, take the time tonight when all your family is together, and create a plan:
- Get everyone is the household together. If you can’t do that, make sure the missing parties are trained on what you went over.
- Walk through every room of your house and draw a plan as you go.
- In your plan, mark where fire extinguishers are and where smoke alarms are.
- Come up with two ways to exit every single room. Through a doorway is always preferred; if that’s not an option, windows offer a plan B. Don’t allow regular occupancy in basement rooms without an egress window; otherwise, there is generally only one escape route.
- Utilize ladders for basement window wells as well as second (or higher) story rooms.
- Teach children how to escape on their own if need be. Have them practice using the escape ladders. Make sure you’re supervising, but this will probably be fun for them to do. Every kid wants a chance to climb out their window.
- Designate a meeting place outside your home; just make sure it’s far enough away that it will be a safe spot.
- Drill your escape plan twice a year, making it as realistic as possible.
- Place your drawn-out plan on the refrigerator as a handy reference. Also point out your plan to any guests you may have that are spending the night at your house. It may seem tedious, but it’s well worth it.
A few other items of note:
- If there are any folks with disabilities in your home, make sure your plan incorporates their needs.
Potential Fire Hazards
- Keep an eye on anything you're cooking if the setting is higher than "warm."
- Keep potholders, plastic utensils, towels, or other non-cooking equipment away from the stove, because these items can catch fire.
- Roll up or fasten long, loose sleeves while cooking.
- Store candy or cookies away from the stove so kids won't be tempted to climb on it to get to the treats.
Cigarettes, Lighters and Matches
Smoking materials are the leading cause of home fire deaths. The tools used to light them are also a fire hazard, so:
- Keep lighters and matches in a locked cabinet out of sight and reach of children, and remind children that they are tools for adults, not toys.
- Make sure that cigarette butts are fully extinguished before emptying ashtrays. Never place a cigarette butt directly into a trashcan without dousing it with water first.
Furnaces, Fireplaces, and Space Heaters
Furnaces should be inspected annually. Keep boxes, paper, and other flammables away from the furnace. An outdoor shed is better.
There are other potential household fire hazards, so keep in mind that:
- Fireplaces should be protected with screens or tempered glass doors. Keep kindling at least three feet away from the fireplace. Have the chimney inspected yearly and cleaned if necessary.
- When purchasing an electric space heater, look for the UL mark. Keep at least three feet between the heater and anything that can burn. Turn the heater off before falling asleep or leaving the area you are heating.
- Make sure wood-burning stoves are properly installed and meet your town's building and fire codes.
- Do not burn trash or other items in the stove. Never use gasoline or other flammable liquids to start a stove fire. Burn coal only if recommended by the manufacturer.
- Remember that wood and coal stoves get very hot. If you have young children living in or visiting your home, supervise them carefully and consider installing a temporary stove guard to help prevent burns.
- Follow stove instructions and cleaning and maintenance requirements.
- Have chimneys inspected each year and cleaned, if necessary, by a professional chimney sweep to avoid dangerous creosote buildup.
- Use an approved stone board under your wood or coal stove to protect the floor from heat and stray embers.