Wednesday, September 26, 2012

National Preparedness Month: Fire Safety for Families

"Preparation through education is less costly than learning through tragedy" 

- Max Mayfield, Former Director National Hurricane Center

September is National Preparedness Month, or as some groups call it, Preptember™.  This means doing whatever you can ahead of time to be prepared for an emergency.

So let's start an occasional series on improving your emergency preparedness.  This will not be a continuous series, but rather a series of occasional posts about various preparedness topics.

No, I'm not a hardcore prepper.  However, I've lived all over the country and have lived through or near several emergencies.  I know that challenging things do happen sometimes, and I've seen that being even minimally prepared can make a lot of difference in survival and/or quality of life during an emergency. Now that I have a family to look after, I'm even more motivated to consider preparedness so that I can protect them as much as possible.

Sometimes preparedness can be intimidating or overwhelming. So, let's do a series of posts focusing on getting started with preparedness, with special attention to preparedness for families.

Remember, emergencies come in all shapes and sizes, just like people.  Some people think that Emergency Preparedness means getting ready for a nuclear bomb or the end of the world, but really, it's far more about being ready for the emergencies you are most likely to encounter.

So let's concentrate first on the most common everyday emergencies, things like house fires and power outages and such. Although it's important to prepare for the bigger disasters, it's often best to start with the things you are most likely to encounter, and then let those preps naturally springboard you into readiness for other things.

Today, let's talk about fire safety preparedness.

Fire Safety

The most common emergency people encounter is a house fire.  According to the Red Cross, "Fires kill more Americans each year than all natural disasters combined." Yet fire is one disaster that many people don't prepare for very thoroughly.

Do you know how to extinguish various types of fires? Do you have several fire extinguishers around your house, including one in your kitchen?  Do you and your older children know where they are and how to use them correctly? (Think "PASS" - Pull the pin, Aim low at the base of the fire, Squeeze the trigger, Sweep the extinguisher from side to side.) 

Do you have a fire escape plan?  Have you talked about what to do and practiced it?  The Red Cross reports that about three-fourths of Americans don't have a fire plan or don't practice one.  But training is important for helping people overcome the panic and chaos that can accompany emergencies; that's why schools have regular fire drills. Families benefit from this too.

Do your children know two ways to escape from every room?  Do they know never to hide in a closet or under a bed in response to a fire, but to exit the building?  Do little ones understand not to hide from firefighters, even though the uniform and mask may look and sound scary?  They need to know that firefighters are there to rescue them, and that the equipment is part of that.

Do they know to crawl on the floor as they exit so they can stay low, under the deadly smoke and fumes?  Do they know to close the bedroom door behind them as they leave to help slow the spread of the fire? Do they know to cover their mouths and noses as much as possible to help reduce smoke inhalation as they exit?

Do your children know to feel the door and doorknob with the back of their hand before opening it to make sure there is not a roaring fire on the other side?  To open the door slowly, with their shoulder behind the door, just in case it needs to be shut quickly again?  Do they know not to use the door if heavy smoke is coming from underneath it?

Do they know how to open the window in their room and exit there if the door is not viable? Have all windows been checked to see that they open easily and that screens/bars can be removed quickly?  If the bedrooms are on an upper floor, do you have emergency rope ladders for getting out of the windows safely?

Do children know to run to the neighbors' house and call 911?  Do they know their address to tell a 911 operator in an emergency? Do they know not to run back in the house for pets or family members, but to let firefighters take care of that?

If fire prevents children from escaping, is there a flashlight or whistle in every child's room so they can alert rescuers to where they are?  Do they know to stuff a towel or clothes under the door and cover air vents to reduce smoke getting into the room? Do they know to wave a flashlight or hang something bright-colored at the window, or to blow their whistle so firefighters can find them and rescue them more quickly?

Do you have an established plan to help family members who may need special assistance, like babies, pre-schoolers, the elderly, or those with special needs? Deaths in house fires occur disproportionately in these vulnerable groups, so it's important to have a plan in place to assist them.

Does your family have a pre-arranged meeting spot once everyone is out?  That way, you will know whether everyone is safe, and if not, you can alert firefighters more quickly to who needs rescuing and where they might be.

All these things are important for children to know if a fire emergency occurs. Remember to practice your family escape plan twice a year, both in the daytime and at night.  Heavy smoke makes it very hard to see and many fires occur at night, so children need to practice escaping in the dark too, not just in the daytime.

Smoke Alarms

Do you have working smoke detectors?  Do you test and change the batteries regularly (if needed)? Do you have enough smoke detectors for your home's needs?  Are they installed correctly?

Having a working smoke alarm cuts the risk of fire-related death in half.  Yet FEMA reports that about 12% of homes still do not have smoke alarms.  Even in those homes which do have smoke alarms, about a third of the alarms don't work properly, the batteries are dead or disconnected, or there are not enough smoke alarms in the house.  That's a lot of vulnerable people.

You need a smoke alarm for every level of your house, because a fire on the lower level can grow to dangerous levels before its smoke is bad enough to set off an alarm upstairs. In addition, it's best to have a smoke alarm right outside every sleeping area of the house.  Many authorities are now recommending having one in every bedroom in the house.

Sleeping with the doors closed can really help lower your chances of dying of smoke/poisonous gas from fires, and it can delay the spread of fire, giving firefighters valuable extra time to rescue your little ones. However, if you sleep with doors closed, you might want to have a smoke alarm inside the bedroom too, in case a fire started inside the room first.

Test buttons on smoke alarms should be pressed monthly to be sure the alarms are still working. If your alarm starts "chirping", replace the battery in it immediately. You should also vacuum around smoke detectors periodically to keep cobwebs and bugs from interfering with them.

Batteries should be replaced about once or twice a year; many authorities suggest the Daylight Savings change day for this ("change your clocks, change your batteries!").  If you don't want to be bothered with changing the batteries regularly, buy the type of smoke alarm that has long-lasting lithium batteries (which should last 10 years).  They are more expensive, but it might be worth it to you.

The smoke alarm itself should be replaced about every 10 years, even if it seems to work, because it can get less sensitive to smoke with time. [I did not know that!]

You can read more about smoke alarms here and here.  If cost is a factor, remember that many areas have programs for getting free or low-cost smoke alarms.  Call your local fire department for more information.

Fire Prevention

Of course, the best thing to do is to avoid a fire altogether.  Prevention is the first step to fire safety preparedness.

The kitchen is the source of most home fires.  Good safety practices for preventing fires in the kitchen include never leaving anything on the stove unattended, turning the handles of pots away from the edge of the stove, keeping combustibles like kitchen towels away from the range, and not wearing loose sleeves when cooking.  In addition, have a kitchen fire extinguisher nearby, within easy reach.

Grease fires are particularly dangerous.  Keep pot lids close at hand for quick smothering of grease fires, sliding it on sideways so you don't get burned.  If you can't find a pot lid that fits, put a cookie sheet on top in order to deprive the flames of oxygen.  Next, turn off the heat source and wait for everything to cool completely before removing the lid.

NEVER pour water on a grease fire or transport it anywhere, or you will likely make the grease fire spread! And while baking soda can help smother a small grease fire, flour can actually ignite and make it worse. Covering a grease fire is really the best option for putting it out quickly, because you deprive it of the oxygen it needs to function, and you don't take the chance of using the wrong substance or not having enough to do the job.  (Of course, if in doubt, get out and call 911.)

Things you can do to prevent fires elsewhere in the house include:
  • having a good sturdy screen on your fireplace
  • not overloading electrical plugs
  • watching for frayed or worn cords
  • not running electrical cords under rugs or across doorways
  • not putting combustible materials near a heat source like baseboard or space heaters
  • having your chimney inspected and cleaned each year
  • disposing of fireplace ashes safely
  • cleaning lint from the dryer each load, and having the hose/vent cleaned regularly
  • being particularly cautious with portable heaters 
  • never leaving candles unsupervised, and using them in tip-proof containers
  • never smoking inside the house and making sure cigarettes are disposed of safely
  • keeping clothes and other combustibles away from water heaters
In addition, many fires are started by children experimenting with flames, so spend time educating children about fire safety.  Keep matches and fire materials stored high, out of the reach of young children.  Make sure they know about "Stop, Drop and Roll," which can save lives if clothes catch on fire. If they find a match or lighter, make sure they know that it's not a toy, and that they need to alert a trusted adult about it.

You can read more about fire prevention here and here.


Fire (and its associated smoke and poison gases) is the second most common cause of accidental death in U.S. homes.

Sadly, small children are twice as likely to die in a fire as the rest of us.  If you have a family, it's especially important to lower your chances for a devastating fire and to know how to respond if one does occur.

The best way to survive a fire emergency is by preventing one in the first place.  Pay attention to general fire safety around the house. Do a fire hazard hunt, and talk to your children about preventing fires.

If a fire occurs despite precautions, a good early-alert smoke alarm greatly improves your chances of survival. The majority of fire fatalities occur in homes without smoke alarms or where the smoke alarms were not working, so check the batteries in your smoke detectors regularly or buy the kind that don't need replacement often.  Update your alarm every 10 years.

In addition, have a fire safety plan in place.  Teach your children how to get out safely, how to alert rescuers to their presence if trapped, and establish a family meeting spot. Make sure your family is ready by running home fire drills about twice a year. These are critical for safety if a fire does occur.

Adapt your precautions as needed for your own situation.  People in high-rise apartments or manufactured homes may have different needs than those in single-family homes, and those who have family members with special needs (hearing impairments, mobility challenges etc.) may need special adaptations in their plans. Be flexible and make adjustments as needed.

Hopefully you will never experience a fire emergency, but if you do, having a plan in place could help save your lives.

Our Experience: How does my family measure up to all this? Well, even the most prepared family has things they can improve on, which is part of the lesson of preparedness.  We are no exception.

At our house, we've done a decent job with fire prevention and family escape plans.  However, we need to practice our fire drills in the dark, test our smoke alarm batteries more regularly, vacuum around our smoke detectors periodically, have our chimney inspected, and have our dryer vent hose cleaned.  And my husband needs to stop leaving the kitchen when he's cooking something on the stove!

After much thought, we recently decided to add more smoke detectors.  We felt our existing ones might not be placed optimally to get an early alert while asleep so we are adding ones in each bedroom.  We also added carbon monoxide detectors, because this is another deadly emergency that can be escaped from with good alarms.

How's YOUR fire safety preparedness at your house?  Any other hints to add to the ones here?

Fire Safety Resources


Sherry said...

Good information, and good reminders. One thinkg I'd like to suggest to people is that, if you're going to help someone whose house is on fire, to think about what you're doing before jumping in.

We had a fire one year when our house was struck by lightning. Our neighbors were quick to jump in and try to help, but not all of their efforts were as helpful as they could have been. One couple rushed in to help us get our cats out. The problem was, our cats were frightened of strangers, so the 'help' just chased the cats into hiding. Another came running with her home fire extinguisher and discharged it up under the eaves where smoke was escaping. I don't think it touched the majority of the fire in the enclosed attic - I wish she'd saved it for a situation where it would have done more good.

I don't mean to sound ungrateful - it was super of everyone to want to pitch in and improve the situation. But trying to deal with unsolicited and misdirected help only made an already stressful situation more so.

(We all got out safely, as did all but one cat. The fire department saved our house, though we needed major repairs. We spent the night of the fire in a hotel, and when I came by the next morning, the missing cat was waiting to greet me inside the door. Our insurance company paid for repairs, hotel stay, cleaning, everything - and then dropped our policy at the next renewal period. Bleh.)

Now that I've typed this all out, I'm not positive it really belongs here... Hope it can help someone, anyway.

Anonymous said...

Great post, I really think it's crucial to involve your children with these kinds of activities. I'm a teacher and I've worked at my fair share of schools who haven't had bright enough emergency lighting and when there was a fire drill/power drill, it was chaos. You could easily tell the kids who had been told what to do by their parents, and they were the safest!

Unknown said...

There are many Fire Extinguishers available in the market and when choosing which one is most suitable to you it can be confusing. We know that the importance of the correct Fire Safety Equipment is paramount and saves lives every day. Home Fire Extinguisher are one of the most imperative fire safety products that should be present in every dwelling to protect very soul in them.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the best way to survive a fire emergency is to prevent it. In addition, one should always be alert and calm during these kinds of incidents. He/she may have a fire plan but due to panic and a rush of emotions he/she may not be able to execute it.

Abigail Kirby

Shelly Slader said...

I agree. It is so important to teach children about fire safefy. I have always been scared about having a house fire and want to make sure my family knows just what to do. I was also looking into some fire protection in Toronto. Any precaution is worth it in my book!