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Fire Safety Tips - Preparation and Planning

Follow these simple guidelines to minimize your risk of a fire occurring
 

Make sure you have good fire extinguishers readily at hand (such as the one pictured here - don't get smaller ones that may be insufficient) - they might save your house if you catch a fire when it first starts.

Part 1 of a 2 part series - part 2 discusses what to do if you discover a fire in your house.

 

 

Chances are either you or someone you know will be impacted by a fire at some stage in their life.

Think the unthinkable, and plan for the unplanned.

This information tells you what to do to minimize your risks and the negative outcomes of a fire, should one occur.

 

An Introduction to House Fires

To quote from one of my readers :

Most people have no idea how fast a fire grows.  They have seen too many TV fires, which have nothing in common with real life.

Nothing can prepare you for the intensity, the fury, the primeval malevolence of a raging fire that is destroying all that is dear and precious to you.  It is noisy, it is smelly, and it is hot.

Most of all, a fire is very fast growing and very lethal.  A fire is a terrifying experience up close, and unless you're lucky to discover it before it has grown out of control, your only sensible response is to evacuate the vicinity with all speed.

Another reader writes

It is rarely fire that kills in a structure fire.  It isthe  poisonous gasses in smoke and heat that reaches thousands (yes thousands) of degrees.  An average sized suburban bedroom, stocked with commercial furnishings usual to such a room, will reach nearly 2000 degrees and be completely filled with smoke in less than 3 minutes.

Anyone in such a room will die.

Without their protective clothing a firefighter would not even think of entering such a scene.

In 2005 I arrived on scene of a McMansion about 4 miles from my home.  It was 1.5 miles from the nearest Fire Station which is fully manned by an engine (hose), truck (ladder/rescue) and Medic units 24/7.  They were on scene in 3 minutes from the alarm.  Four other stations sent units in 3 alarm responses.  Other support units (including another chaplain and me and the Red Cross, 3 Battalion chiefs and the Deputy Chief for the shift) were present as well.

The fire started in the basement and was through the roof before the first engine company arrived (in less than 4 minutes), and it collapsed in something like 10 minutes.  No one was injured (even 2 cats managed to somehow get out of the house).  But the house was completely destroyed in 10 minutes even with 3 engine companies, 3 truck, 1 tower deluge unit and several other units on scene by then.

The people survived because they got out when the smoke alarm went off. So should we all.

Consider this also :  The firefighter, knowing you might be inside overcome while trying to fight the fire will risk his own life to try to rescue you.  Even if you survive, would you want his/her injuries or death on your conscience?  Do not create a victim by trying to fight the fire (or even trying to rescue someone -- you are not trained or prepared to do so and might endanger not only yourself but the firefighters who then have to come after you).

Fires are more common than you think

In the United States, someone is injured in a house fire every half hour.  Every three hours (8 times every day) a house fire claims a life.

Fires are not only things that happen to 'someone else'.  They could happen to you, and/or to someone close to you.  So please do read and act upon the information here, and encourage your family and friends to do the same.

Preventing and Planning for Fires

Most home fires start in the kitchen.  If you're ever remodeling your kitchen, or if you're building a new house, try and get the kitchen built with as much fire resistant material as possible, especially around the stove area.

Another consideration is adding fire sprinklers to a house when it is being newly built (or remodeled).  As a quick rule of thumb, a residential fire sprinkler system is likely to only add about 1% to the cost of the house (and might get you a discount on your home insurance premiums).

Sprinklers typically only activate in areas where there is fire, so they are a sensible proposition - you're not going to drench your entire house if the sprinklers are triggered in one room.

Smoke Detectors

So this seems like old news - add a smoke detector to your house.  Most of us already have smoke detectors fitted.

But are they sensibly located?  When I had my fire, none of the smoke detectors sounded until after I'd already discovered the fire myself (I was alerted to it by the sound of glass breaking).  Lesson learned - put smoke detectors everywhere in your house (at least one or two on every level, not just in one or two central locations.

Be sure to place them in 'high risk' areas such as kitchens and other places where heat and or flames occur, and also outside your bedroom to protect you when you're sleeping.

Note - several industry sources say to always sleep with your door closed, and with a fire detector outside the door.  That way, if the alarm goes off, you have a little time before the fire appears inside your bedroom.  And don't open your bedroom door before checking the handle and the upper part of the door surface - if there is any warmth, you absolutely don't want to open that door, because the fire is way too close to it on the other side.  Exit your bedroom some other way.  If you have children in another bedroom, it is better for you to leave the house then go around to their window, rather than to struggle through a house on fire.

Another surprisingly high risk area is your laundry.  Lint induced fires can occur in the laundry, so make sure you have a detector in the laundry.

Most smoke detectors have low battery warning alerts, but check to see what their estimated battery life is and consider replacing batteries, whether they need replacing or not, either annually or at half the promised battery life.

Special Smoke Detectors for Kitchens

Did you know there are two different types of smoke detectors?  The most common ones use a miniscule radioactive source and test for ionization; these detect the gaseous by-products of a fire faster, and smoke slower.  There are also photo-electric ones that detect smoke faster and the other gaseous by-products slower.

Many of us are unsure about putting smoke detectors in our kitchen, because burnt toast or steak or whatever tends to set them off.  But - remember the kitchen is your most at-risk location for fires, so consider a photo-electric type smoke detector for the kitchen - this is less likely to give as many false alarms during normal cooking.

Consider also smoke detectors immediately outside the kitchen too.

Do your smoke detectors work properly?

The good news - nine out of ten homes have smoke detectors.  The bad news?  Millions of these detectors either do not work at all, or have lost much of their sensitivity.

While the main cause of non-working smoke detectors is simply missing or dead batteries, it seems they also lose their sensitivity over time.  It is recommended you change your smoke detectors every ten years (perhaps write the purchase date in the battery compartment and check it each time you replace the battery).

And even new detectors can quickly fail.  A recent Seattle study (April 08) showed that 20% of ionization type alarms had failed within 9 months, compared to only 5% of photo electric ones.

(See the Resources section below for where to buy smoke detectors of all types.)

Alternate Exits and Escape Ladders

Consider every room in your house and ask yourself the question 'How will I exit this room if the main way out is blocked by fire (or by earthquake collapse or other catastrophe)?

If the answer is 'jump out an upper floor window' go easy on yourself and get emergency escape ladders.  While most people can safely jump six feet (which is about the height if you let yourself out a second floor window, hang on with outstretched arms, then let go), you're risking serious injury at 16' (two floors up) and death at 25' (three floors up).

If you buy an escape ladder, practice using it so you know how it works.  The wrong time to take it out of its box for the first time is when there's a fire crackling hungrily on the other side of your door.

(See the Resources section below for where to buy escape ladders.)

When exiting a house in which there's already a fire, don't hesitate to crawl along the floor.  Here's a comment from an industry source :

Heat in excess of 1000 degrees can be only 3 feet above the floor.  Crawl keeping your face near the floor - the air is cooler and less smoky.  Be careful not to get lost - many victims of fire are found in the bedroom closet.  They crawled in and got disoriented and passed out.

It might seem unthinkable to you that you'd crawl into your closet by mistake, then not be able to get out again, but apparently many people do.  When you're panicking, hyperventilating, and - ooops - sucking in way too many toxic fumes, you're not thinking at all clearly, and, as you've just read, people make really stupid mistakes.  Don't add yourself to this list of victims.

House Numbering and Visibility

Is your house well numbered, so that it can be read from the street both during the day and at night?  Investing in a bright large numbered sign - there are plenty to choose from at places such as Home Depot - can save valuable seconds or minutes, and if it is an emergency response where you're not able to go to the street to help the Fire or Paramedics to find your location, it might save your life, too.

Consider getting either a solar powered (if you get plenty of sun year round - more than an hour a day) or mains powered sign to make it really stand out at night.

(See the Resources section below for a selection of house numbering systems.)

Flashlights

If a fire happens at night, nothing is more certain than, sooner or later, you're going to need flashlights.  Keep special 'emergency' flashlights in a specific location or locations, somewhere separate from regular house flashlights, and change their batteries every year - perhaps switching the batteries to other devices and putting fresh ones into the emergency flashlights.

Flashlights with LED type bulbs are more reliable than ones with regular incandescent bulbs - the bulbs last much longer.

That way, if/when you need flashlights, you'll have ones that have been rarely if ever used and with fresh batteries.

Electricity

Do you know where your master electrical panel is and how to turn the electricity off?  Make sure you know this, and make sure that the door to the panel isn't jammed shut (or even locked).

Consider also keeping an emergency flashlight by the panel.  That way if you need to turn the power off, you have a flashlight immediately at hand.

Gas

If you have gas, know where your gas master valve is; be sure it is accessible, and also check that you can turn the valve closed.

If you can't readily close the valve yourself, attach a suitably sized spanner to the gas meter with a plastic tie that can be easily broken in an emergency.

In my case, with a gas stove top that was on at the time, this was a potential issue, and fortunately I could reach the stove top and turn off the burner, but if the fire got closer to the gas lines, I'd have needed to shut off the gas.  Subsequent checking revealed that I couldn't close the master valve on the meter by myself without having to go find a spanner that fits (get an exact sized spanner - in the stress of a real fire, the last thing you want to fiddle with is an adjustable spanner that won't adjust properly!).

Fire Hydrants

This is an interesting suggestion (from a fire industry professional). Walk the street around your neighborhood and locate, for yourself, the nearest fire hydrants on either side of your house.

Sure, in theory the firemen will know where they are, but perhaps the hydrants have been slightly obscured by foliage or who knows what, and if you can show them where the closest two hydrants are, you might save valuable time.

It also helps if you can tell them the color of the hydrants, because the color tells them the hydrant capacity. If you can say, for example, 'there is a red hydrant 50 yards up the road in the bushes on the right, and a yellow hydrant 75 yards down the road on the left - would you like me to take you to either or both of them?' that might be very helpful.

Read more in Part 2

In Part 2 part we discuss what to do if you discover a fire in your house.
 

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Originally published 4 Apr 2008, last update 15 Oct 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
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