The advent of cooler weather also means a higher risk of home fires, which safety officials point out are largely preventable. Today is the end of National Fire Prevention Week, with the theme “Have 2 Ways Out,” reminding people to have a plan to get out of your home in case of emergency – a plan with at least two exits.
In 2011, firefighters in the U.S. responded to 1.39 million fires, more of one-fourth of which were in residential structures, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Those house fires took 2,550 lives.
Here are five things to think about and prepare for to reduce your family’s risks.
1. Candles – think twice about that. We love candles, and we really like to burn them around the holidays. About 42 home fires started by candles are reported every day in the U.S., and those spike in December. The U.S. Fire Administration recommends simply avoiding candles if you can.
If you do burn candles, then safety advocates have several recommendations:
Make sure they are in sturdy holders made of metal, glass or ceramic.
Keep candles away from children and pets.
Put them out after each use, and don’t leave a burning candle unattended.
Resist the temptation to put candles on the Christmas tree.
More than half of all candle fires start when something such as furniture, curtains, bedding or decorations is too close to the candle.
Remember that more than one-third of fires begun by candles start in the bedroom, often after people fall asleep. Half of the deaths in fires started by candles happen between midnight and 6 a.m.
2. Cooking – take care in the kitchen. Cooking equipment causes more home structure fires than anything else – about four fires of of 10 – and the Consumer Product Safety Commission several years ago determined that for every household cooking fire called in to the fire department, another 50 are not. Home structure fires tend to peak around the dinner hour, from 5 to 8 p.m.
The suggestions from the NFPA are straightforward: Stay in the kitchen when frying, grilling or broiling. If you leave, even for a short time, just turn off the stove. Generally, keep the kitchen free of anything easily combustible.
3. Smoking – take it outside. Smoking is not the leading cause of home fires, but it is the leading of home-fire deaths. The number of fires related to smoking materials has been falling for decades, but the NFPA says there still were about 90,800 smoking-material fires in the U.S. in 2010, causing 610 deaths, 1,570 injuries and $663 million in property damage. About one-fourth of those who died were not the person whose cigarette started the fire.
Page 2 of 4 - Officials say the numbers are falling because of the overall decline in smoking and because of higher standards for fire-resistant mattresses and upholstered furniture. Also, starting in 2003, states began enacting laws requiring that cigarettes be “fire-safe,” that is, they have much less ability to start fires. By 2010, 47 states were on board, and 2012 is the first year all 50 states have the laws. The NFPA says that has significantly cut the number of deaths and injuries from fires started by cigarettes.
Safety experts suggest asking smokers to smoke outside (that’s also an indoor air-quality issue) and have sturdy, deep ashtrays for smokers. Also, keep matches and lighters out of reach of children. Ashtrays should be set on something sturdy and hard to ignite, such as an end table. Before you throw out butts and ashes, make sure they are out.
4. Bring the heat – but be careful. Space heaters, wood stoves and fireplaces need special attention.
For space heaters – a leading wintertime cause of house fires – the precautions are many:
Buy products tested by Underwriters Laboratory.
Buy one with an automatic shutoff feature and heat element guards.
Keep it at least three feet from anything combustible such as bedding, furniture. wall coverings or anything else flammable.
Don’t leave a space heater unattended.
Inspect it before using it. Check the cord for fraying or cracking. Look for broken wires. Look for signs of overheating.
Don’t run electrical cords under rugs or carpeting (for space heaters or any other devices). If you need an extension cord for a space heater, use a heavy-duty one marked with a No. 14 gauge or larger wire. If the heater plug has a grounding prong, use only a grounding (three- wire) extension cord.
In liquid-fueled heaters, use only the fuel recommended by the manufacturer – never gasoline or other substitute fuel. Let the heater cool off before refueling.
Electrical fires in households take more than 280 lives a year, so be careful generally. Routinely check your electrical appliances and wiring, and promptly replace any cords that are frayed or damaged. Avoid overloading outlets. If you have an electrical tool that causes even a small shock, or overheats, or shorts out, or sparks, or put out any smoke, replace it. Don’t let children play near electrical appliances.
Fireplaces are more for show and comfort than for heating, but they, too, need attention.
The Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety suggests:
Have the fireplace professionally inspected and cleaned annually.
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Install a removable cap at the top of the chimney to keep out debris and animals.
Install a spark arrestor with one-quarter-inch mesh.
Keep the area around the fireplace clear of books, newspapers, furniture and other combustible materials.
Close the screen but keep the glass doors open when having a fire. Use a fireplace grate.
Don’t burn garbage, rolled newspapers, charcoal or plastic in the fireplace, and avoid using gasoline or any liquid accelerant.
Clean out ashes from previous fires. Store them in a noncombustible container with a tight-fitting lid. Keep that container outside and away from the house.
Make sure the fire is completely extinguished before closing the damper.
5. Have a plan, know your plan. A little planning, the NFPA advises, can spare a lot of trouble.
Have smoke alarms on every level of your home, inside bedrooms and outside sleeping areas. Have them connected so that when one sounds, they all go off. Test smoke alarms at least once a month and replace conventional batteries once a year or when the alarm chirps to tell you the battery is low. If your smoke alarms more more than 10 years old, replace them. A working fire alarm dramatically increases the chances of surviving a fire. Also, carbob monoxide detectors less than seven years old should be replaced.
Make a home fire escape plan – and practice it at least twice a year. Draw a map of your home, level by level, showing all doors and windows. Find two ways to get out of each room. Make sure all doors and windows that lead outside open easily. Teach children how to escape on their own. Have a plan for anyone with has a disability. Practice your plan – at night and during the daytime. If you buy collapsible escape ladders, get those evaluated by a recognized testing laboratory, and only use that ladder in an emergency.
If you are building or remodeling, install residential fire sprinklers, which can contain and even extinguish a fire in less time than it takes firefighters to arrive.
Remember some key about house fires. Every second counts. Get outside first, and then call for help. Your family’s fire escape plan should include designating a meeting place outside. Make sure everyone knows that spot and knows two ways to get out of the house. Don’t stand up in a fire. Crawl low, under the smoke, and try to keep your mouth covered. Don’t go back into a burning building.