Home fires are preventable! There are general fire safety precautions you should follow regardless of where you live. The following are simple steps that each of us can take to prevent a tragedy.
Alcohol Use and Parties
Of all the risks you’re taking when you and/or your roommates decide to throw a party — the chances of disciplinary or legal consequences, etc. — the most serious is that of physical harm befalling you and your guests thanks to a drunken mishap. Everyone wants to have a good time, but as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) puts it, you’d really better “assign a non-impaired event monitor.” In other words, somebody has to be the Sober Guy or Sober Girl. It is a good idea to have an alert roommate to keep tabs on the party, preventing thefts and minor damage. Most crucially, someone should watch out for unattended cigarettes, fallen lamps and other potential hazards. That person should also make one last sweep before everyone goes to bed to make sure there are no discarded cigarettes that are still smoldering. Many fires occur when a cigarette is left smoldering in a couch or garbage can.
- When using barbecue grills on decks or patios, be sure to leave sufficient space from siding and eaves. A grill should be set on level ground away from walls, trees, porch railings, or other combustible materials;
- Always supervise a barbecue grill when in use;
- Use a “chimney” when starting a charcoal grill. This allows the coals to heat without the need for starter fluid. Charcoal “chimneys” can be purchased anywhere that sells grilling equipment;
- With gas grills, be sure that the hose connection is tight and check hoses carefully for leaks. Applying soapy water to the hoses will easily and safely reveal any leaks;
- Never use gasoline to start or maintain an outdoor cooking fire;
- Never use grills inside or in a tent;
- When burned charcoal produces carbon monoxide. Make sure you use the grill outdoors in a well ventilated area; and
- Douse the coals with water once you are done grilling. Embers can stay lit for several hours after you are done cooking.
Because fire is a risk in every building – whether you sleep, study, or work there – you should always have an escape plan. You may need to escape within a few minutes of a fire’s start, so your safe exit depends on immediate warning from smoke alarms and advance planning of escape routes.
Escape Plan Basics
- Include two ways out of every room in all escape plans;
- Designate a location to meet outside the building;
- Verify that smoke alarms are installed to provide early detection and warning so you’ll have enough time to execute your escape plan;
- Make sure doors located in your path of travel can be opened from the inside under all lighting conditions; and
- Verify that doors located in your path of travel do not require a key to open from the inside.
There are thousands of home fires in the U.S. every year, which result in roughly 3,000 deaths annually. Almost half of these deaths resulted from fires that were reported between the hours of 11:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m., the time period in which most people sleep. For this reason, providing smoke alarms in bedrooms may be the single most important step toward preventing fire-related casualties in residential buildings.
Smoke Alarm Basics
- Install at least one smoke alarm in every bedroom;
- Install additional smoke alarms in hallways and common areas in the vicinity of bedrooms;
- Install at least one smoke alarm on every level of your home;
- Make sure the smoke alarms within your home are interconnected so the activation of one alarm will activate all alarms within the home; and
- Try to use smoke alarms powered by the building electrical system, which have a battery for backup power…. However, if this type of smoke alarm is not available, battery-powered units are certainly better than not having smoke alarms.
Smoke Alarm Maintenance
- Test smoke alarms at least once a month, by pressing the button on the alarm that allows you to test the unit; and
- Replace smoke alarm batteries every year.
Candles and Incense
Candles and incense are often used to create ambiance or help celebrate a special event, but they are open flames that pose a threat of fire. Most candle fires take place in the bedroom, and many occur when candles are left unattended. In addition, the winter holidays and New Year’s Eve are peak times for candle fires, so be sure to exercise caution when celebrating with open flames.
Candle and Incense Basics
- Remember: candles and burning incense are open flames, and the safest option is not to have them in your home;
- Never leave candles or incense unattended, and always extinguish them before leaving the room or going to sleep;
- Keep candles and incense away from curtains, clothing, books and newspapers, and other combustible items;
- Keep candles and incense away from flammable liquids (i.e., alcohol, oil, etc.);
- Use durable candle holders, which are made of non-combustible materials, are big enough to collect wax drippings, and don’t tip over easily;
- Trim candle wicks to one-quarter inch, and maintain this wick length throughout the candle’s life;
- Extinguish taper and pillar candles when their wax melts down to within two inches of the holder, and extinguish votives and other encased candles before the last half inch of wax starts to melt; and
- Use flashlights during blackouts instead of candles, and always avoid carrying lit candles whenever possible.
Cooking fires are the leading cause of home fires and household fire injuries. Unattended cooking is the leading cause of these fires, most of which start with the ignition of common household items including grease, paper, cabinets and curtains.
Cooking Safety Basics
- Never leave food unattended while it’s cooking on the stove, and closely monitor food cooking in the oven
- Maintain a clean and tidy cooking area that is free of items that catch on fire easily, such as cloth (curtains, potholders, towels, etc.), paper (cook books, food packaging, newspapers, etc.), and plastic (food packaging, storage containers, etc.)
- Roll up your shirtsleeves, or wear short, tight sleeves while cooking, so your clothes don’t accidentally hang onto stove burners and catch fire
- Always keep a potholder, oven mitt, and lid on hand
- Never plug microwaves into extension cords, and never microwave metal containers or tinfoil
In the Event of Stovetop Fire:
- If the fire is small and contained in a pan, put on an oven mitt and smother the flames by carefully sliding the lid over the pan
- Turn off the burner
- Don’t remove the lid until it is completely cool
- Never pour water on a grease fire
- Never discharge a fire extinguisher onto a pan fire since it can splatter burning grease out of the pan and spread the fire
In the Event of Oven Fire:
- Turn off the heat
- Keep the oven door closed to prevent you and your clothes from catching fire
- Notify other occupants, and evacuate the building
- Call the fire department
In the Event of Microwave Fire:
- Keep the microwave door closed
- Unplug the microwave to remove the source of heat
- Notify other occupants, and evacuate the building
- Call the fire department
The respiratory health hazards of smoking are well-publicized, but a lesser-known fact is that smoking materials are the leading cause of fire-related deaths in the U.S. The most commonly ignited items in these fatal fires are mattresses and bedding, upholstered furniture, and floor coverings.
Smoking Fire Safety
- Smoke outside, so you do not put others at risk
- Never smoke in bed
- Don’t smoke if you are sleepy, have been drinking, or have taken medicine or other drugs that impair your ability to handle smoking materials correctly
- Use deep, wide ashtrays on a sturdy surface
- Make sure butts and ashes are extinguished by soaking them in water before discarding them
- Check under furniture cushions, and in other places people smoke, for butts and ashes that may have fallen out of sight
Electrical distribution equipment poses serious fire safety threats that can even be fatal, especially when equipment is used incorrectly.
Electrical Safety Basics
- Protect electrical outlets with plastic safety covers if small children are present in your home
- Never operate electrical appliances around bathtubs, showers, or puddles of standing water
- Use ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) protection when working where water is near electricity, to protect against electric shock…. This means you should use GFCIs in your kitchen, laundry room, bathroom, and outdoor locations
- Replace or repair frayed, loose, or otherwise damaged cords on all electronics
- Shut off the circuit and have it checked by an electrician if any switches feel warm
- Take note of any discolored switch plates, because discoloration could indicate that the electrical wiring behind the switch plate is overheating
- Remember: symptoms of potential wiring problems include household lights that dim or flicker, a TV picture that shrinks in size, frequent blown fuses, or circuit breakers that trip frequently
- Place lamps on level surfaces, away from flammable items, and use light bulbs that match the lamps’ recommended wattages
Extension Cords and Surge Suppressors
- Never use an extension cord as a replacement for permanent wiring
- Avoid running extension cords across doorways or under carpets
- Make sure power strips and surge suppressors are designed to handle the loads you will be using them for
- Connect power strips and surge protectors directly into a wall outlet. Do not connect multiple power strips or surge protectors together
- Avoid overloading circuits by plugging too many items into the same outlet
- Avoid the use of “cube taps” and other devices that allow the connection of multiple appliances into a single receptacle, and try to only plug one high-wattage item into each outlet
- Avoid using halogen lamps whenever possible since they operate at much higher temperatures than normal light bulbs
- If you use halogen lamps, make sure the lamp is placed in a location where it cannot come into contact with drapes, clothing, or other combustible materials
- Keep halogen lamps and cords away from high-traffic areas and turn lamps off when leaving the room for an extended period of time
Heating equipment is the leading cause of home fires during the winter months, and the second leading cause of home fires annually. Heating equipment includes fireplaces, wood stoves, portable space heaters, and fixed space heaters. Nearly half of all deaths attributed to home heating equipment fires involve portable space heaters.
- Make sure all gas-fueled and wood-burning heating devices are vented to the exterior of the building
- Consider installing a carbon monoxide alarm in a central location outside of each bedroom if gas-fueled or wood-burning appliances are used in your home
Fireplaces and Wood-burning Stoves
- Use properly seasoned wood to reduce creosote build-up in fireplaces and stoves
- Protect fireplaces with a sturdy screen to prevent sparks from flying into the room
- Allow ashes to cool before removing them from a fireplace or stove
- Dispose of ashes in a metal container
- Maintain a 36 inch clearance between space heaters and combustible items
- Turn off portable space heaters every time you leave the room or go to sleep
Laundry equipment is often overlooked when addressing the issue of home fire safety. However, laundry appliances pose a serious fire risk because they involve electricity, and the combination of combustible clothing and extremely hot temperatures. The vast majority of laundry fires are caused by dryers that are not cleaned properly.
Dryer Safety Basics
- Have dryers installed and serviced by a competent professional
- Have gas-powered washers and dryers inspected periodically by a professional to ensure the gas line and its connection are intact
- Make sure that the dryer is plugged into an outlet that meets its electrical needs, so it doesn’t overload the outlet and trip circuit breakers or blow fuses
- Keep the area around the dryer clear of boxes, clothing, and other combustibles
- Turn the dryer off when leaving home
- Do not operate the dryer without a lint filter
- Clean lint filters before or after each use, and remove any lint from around the dryer drum
- Make sure the dryer exhausts into the exterior or into a listed water trap
- Inspect the area around the dryer for accumulations of lint, paying special attention to the area behind the dryer, and remove any lint you notice
- Inspect the flexible exhaust duct (if your dryer has one), and remove lint accumulations on a periodic basis
Each year gasoline causes several thousand household fires, many of which result in injury and even death. It is helpful to remember gasoline is a volatile liquid that is constantly releasing flammable vapors, which are heavier than air and accumulate at the lowest point in an area. If released inside a building, these vapors sink to floor level and spread out across the room, and if these vapors make contact with an ignition source a flash-fire will likely result.
Gasoline Safety Basics
- Never use gasoline inside the home or as a cleaning agent
- Never use gasoline to wash mechanical parts
- Never use gasoline to start a fire in barbecue pits or cooking grills
- Never use gasoline as a replacement for kerosene or diesel
- Do not use or store gasoline near potential ignition sources, including gas-fired water heaters that contain a pilot flame
- Follow all manufacturers’ instructions when using electronics (including all devices with batteries or connections to electrical outlets) near gasoline
- Clean up spills immediately and discard clean-up materials properly
In the Event of Gasoline Fire
- Leave the area immediately, and call the fire department
- Do not attempt to extinguish the fire
- Do not attempt to stop the flow of gasoline
- Store gasoline outside in a garage or shed
- Never store gasoline in glass, or in plastic milk jugs and other non-reusable plastic containers
- Store gasoline in a tightly closed metal or plastic container designed, manufactured, and approved specifically for gasoline storage
- Store only the amount of gasoline necessary to power equipment and machinery
Fueling and Handling Gasoline
- Do not smoke while handling gasoline
- Use caution when fueling machinery and automobile equipment
- Never fuel machinery or equipment indoors, and always let it cool before refueling
- Place portable gasoline containers on the ground before filling, and only fill them outdoors
- Never fill portable containers inside a vehicle or in the bed of a pick-up truck, to prevent a static charge from developing
- Do not get in and out of automobiles while fueling…. Although rare, this movement creates an electrical charge on your body that could spark a fire, especially during dry weather conditions
Over 1,000 home fires are caused by liquid propane annually, and these fires cause hundreds of injuries and deaths. Propane is a flammable gas that is converted to a liquid before being stored within a cylinder or tank. When released from its container, propane converts back to a gas and expands significantly; if this expanding gas comes in contact with an ignition source an explosion can result. When first released, the gas is cold and heavier than the surrounding air, which creates a “cloud” of heavy gas that will stay close to the ground and collect in low areas.
Propane Safety Basics
- Never store or use propane gas cylinders larger than one pound inside your home
- Never store or operate a propane-powered gas grill indoors
- Always handle propane-powered equipment cautiously, according to the manufacturers’ instructions
- Have propane gas equipment inspected by a professional for leaks and faulty parts on a regular basis
- Follow the manufacturers’ instructions carefully when lighting pilots
- Leave the area immediately and call the fire department from outside the home if you smell a strong odor of gas
These fire safety statistics and tips refer to fact sheets on the National Fire Protection Association website, the authoritative resource for fire prevention information online.