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
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
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
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
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.
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
Fires are more common than you
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
Resources section below for where to
buy smoke detectors of all types.)
Alternate Exits and Escape
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.
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
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
Resources section below for a selection
of house numbering systems.)
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.
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.
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
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
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
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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4 Apr 2008, last update
25 Aug 2018
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.