By Gordon Williams
Colder weather is just ahead and colder weather brings frosty cheeks, falling leaves, football–and fires. The government’s U.S. Fire Administration says the frequency of home fires bottoms out in September and then climbs month-by-month as winter settles in. Peak month for home fires is January.
Lisa Braxton of the Public Education Division of the National Fire Protection Association tells homeowners to minimize the risk of fire by doing a home safety check before the weather turns cold. The NFPA is a nonprofit organization, dating back to 1896, which seeks to eliminate death, injury, property and economic loss due to fire, electrical and related hazards.
The reason for the winter-time spike in fires is pretty obvious, says Braxton. “We’re home more, we cook inside more and we turn on heating systems to keep us warm.”
That last point is critical, says Braxton, since heating equipment is the leading cause of fire deaths in U.S. homes. “Before you turn the system on, have it checked by a qualified professional,” she says. If you rely on a wood-burning stove, check for cracks, loose connections to the chimney and damage to the chimney itself.
She says that all chimneys and vents should be inspected and cleaned by a qualified professional at least once a year. Built up lint in a dryer vent can easily catch fire.
If you use electric space heaters, do your own inspection. “Look for cracks, damaged cords or broken plugs,” she says. “If it’s an older model, make sure it is designed to turn off automatically if it tips over.” She also says to plug the heater directly into a wall outlet rather than into an extension cord. Whatever heating device you use, make sure there is never anything combustible close enough to catch fire.
Do that same check for damage to the cord and plug for every electrical appliance in your home. Given all the electrical devices found in modern-day homes, you need to make sure your existing system can handle the load. If in doubt, have an electrician inspect your electrical system to confirm it is equal to the demands you are putting on it.
By now you should know how essential it is to have smoke alarms in your home.
The American Red Cross Home Fire Campaign aims to help you do that. You can find out more about participating in the campaign by visiting our Home Fire Campaign website.
Once the smoke alarm is in place, give it a push-button check once a month. If the alarm does not have long-life batteries, replace the battery at least once a year. If the alarm chirps, replace the battery. Replace alarms with 10-year, non-replaceable batteries 10 years from the date of manufacture (found on the back of the alarm). Test a CO alarm once a month as well. “Check the manufacturer’s instructions to make sure it is working properly,” Braxton says.
You can keep fire extinguishers around–so long as you understand their limitations. Fires spread so rapidly, you are better off calling the fire department and getting out at the first sign of fire. “If you decide to use an extinguisher anyway, only do so if the fire is small, confined and not spreading,” Braxton says. “If you do use an extinguisher, use it while backing out of the room toward the exit until you are safely away from the fire, and everyone else has left the home.”,
Braxton urges parents to combine the safety check with a family emergency planning session. “Make sure your kids know how to call 911 and report a fire,” she says. “Have the kids draw a map showing all exits from the home and have them point out at least two ways out of every room. Set up a meeting place in case of fire a safe distance from the home–a light post, mailbox or tree–and make sure everyone knows how to get to it”
Carry out the safety check wherever you live–home, apartment building, mobile home. If it’s an apartment house, Braxton says, check with the building manager to make sure there is a fire safety plan. “If there is a fire,” she says “you need to know if it’s building policy for tenants to evacuate or to shelter in place.”
For more about guarding against fire, look for material connected to Fire Prevention Week–October 8-14 this year. You will find the material online at firepreventionweek.org and from the American Red Cross.