Fewer Americans die in house fires than a generation ago, but winter is always a time of greater concern. There’s a structure fire somewhere in America roughly once a minute, but that goes up in the colder months.
Officials have simple but strong advice: Have an escape plan for your home – and practice it. Take care in the kitchen. Take care with heating elements in your home. Have smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and check them regularly.
Of the 140 structure fires in Independence last year, 42 percent came from the three leading causes:
• Cooking fires, which caused 26 of the structure fires, including the year’s only fire fatality in the city.
“Cooking fires are one of our big ones, and that’s true around the country as well. And it’s unattended cooking,” says Fire Chief Sandy Schiess.
So the rule is, if you leave the kitchen, turn off the stove. Also, Schiess suggested, take a cooking utensil with you to remind yourself to get back to the kitchen.
• Smoking material fires – 15 structure fires in the city last year – often caused when someone falls asleep while smoking or, sometimes, when someone smokes while using oxygen.
• Electrical fires, which caused 19 structure fires last year. Experts remind people to have work done by qualified electricians. Remember that extension cords are intended for temporary use; make sure they are not running under carpets or across doorways. Make sure cords are not frayed or worn. Plug the big stuff – washers and dryers, stoves, refrigerators, air conditioners – directly into a wall outlet. Only plug one heat-producing device, such as a toaster or coffee maker, into a receptacle outlet at a time.
A special note of caution on space heaters: Be careful. Keep the kids at least three feet away. Keep anything flammable at least three feet away, and, Schiess notes, check the manufacturer’s instructions. Those might be more restrictive.
“Know the limits of what you purchase ... and act accordingly,” she says.
There also are more active steps people can take to stay safe, starting with smoke detectors.
Thirty years ago, Schiess says, 12,000 to 13,000 people died in fires annually. In 2012, according to the National Fire Protection Association, that number was 2,855. The difference is smoke detectors.
“This has been the single biggest factor in saving lives,” Schiess says.
At least one smoke alarm – and carbon monoxide alarm – is recommended for each floor of a home. The city has a program to give smoke alarms – which are required by city code – to homeowners who need them. Last year, it gave out 186. These are the newer models, which have 10-year batteries. Call 816-325-7123 for more information.
“It will be ongoing as long as the grant money holds out,” Schiess says.
It’s also important to check the batteries on smoke and carbon monoxide detectors monthly. Some older models run on batteries that don’t last all that long.
“If your smoke detectors are more than 10 years old, you should probably replace them,” Schiess says.
Schiess also stressed the importance of an escape plan for your home.
“I know this works,” she says.
Put together a plan with at least two routes of escape. Make sure everyone knows the plan and where to meet outside. Studies show that people actually tend not to panic in such emergencies, Schiess says, and practicing the plan – Are pathways clear? Will that window really open? – makes a huge difference.
“And you will act out what you’ve practiced,” she says.
Simple things help, too. Sleep with the door closed. It’s one more wall between yourself and a fire. If there is a fire, feel the door before going into the next room or hallway. If it’s hot, go the other way.
“Put a door between you and where you think the fire might be,” Schiess says.
Stay low – under the smoke – and get out quickly. Call 911 and let firefighters be the ones to go in for other people or for pets.
Also, be careful with heat sources such as fireplaces and wood stoves. Use the appropriate fuel, and keep those devices well cleaned. Have them professionally cleaned and inspected annually.