By Gordon Williams
More than 350,000 American homes catch fire each year and more than 3,000 Americans die in those fires. It is to reduce the frequency and severity of those fires that the National Fire Protection Association proclaims Fire Prevention Week in the first week of October each year.
The dates for Fire Prevention Week this year are October 3-9 — timed to coincide with the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire, which started on October 8, 1871. The hope is that you will spend the week doing all you can to safeguard your home, and yourself, from fire. There is plenty of useful material from the Red Cross and others to show you what to do.
Consider protecting you and your family a two-step process:
- Step one: Do a safety check of your home to eliminate any conditions that might start a fire. Most home fires begin in the kitchen. By practicing the rules for kitchen fire safety, you take a big step toward reducing the risk of fire in your home.
- Step two: Practice the rules for escaping to safety should a fire break out. Fires double in size every 30 seconds, so you must get everyone in the household out quickly. The Red Cross Fire Prevention Safety and Checklist sums it up this way: “If a fire occurs in your home — GET OUT, STAY OUT and CALL for help.”
The sooner you are alerted to fire, the sooner you can move toward safety. That is why a working smoke alarm is at the heart of any fire safety plan. As that Red Cross checklist recommends, “Install smoke alarms on every level of your home, inside bedrooms and outside sleeping areas. Test them every month and (if appropriate) replace the batteries at least once a year.”
If you don’t have a working smoke alarm, the Red Cross will install one at no cost to you — and teach you fire safety lessons as part of our Sound The Alarm campaign. Call 1-833-918-1531 or visit redcross.org/nwhomefire.
Two things make the kitchen the most fire-prone room in the house: becoming distracted while cooking and putting flammable items near a flame. “Stay in the kitchen when frying, grilling or broiling food,” says the Red Cross. “If you leave the kitchen for even a short period of time, turn off the stove.”
A further warning from the Red Cross is, “Keep anything that can catch fire — like potholders, towels, plastic and clothing — away from the stove.”
Next, make sure you use heating devices safely. “Keep items that can catch fire at least three feet away from anything that gets hot, like a space heater,” says the Red Cross.
- Make sure all space heaters turn off automatically if they tip over.
- Never leave a space heater on when you go to bed.
- Plug all appliances, including heating devices, into a wall outlet, rather than using an extension cord.
- Check all wiring in the house for damage or wear, and never run an electrical cord under a carpet. It can become frayed or worn without you noticing it.
- Have a professional check out your home heating system before you turn it on for the winter.
Then it is important to train your family how to react should a fire break out. Time is your enemy here, since the longer it takes to make it to safety, the greater the risk of injury or death. “Ensure that all household members know two ways to escape from every room in your home,” says the Red Cross.
“Practice escaping from your home at least twice a year and at different times of the day. Practice waking up to smoke alarms, low crawling and meeting outside. Make sure everyone knows how to call 9-1-1.” You crawl low to reach safety because heat from the fire is lower near the ground, and smoke and toxic gases are thinnest near the ground.
Top priority is to get everyone to safety, and only then call for help. When you do call 9-1-1, make sure the dispatcher knows if anyone is still inside the fire building and if anyone needs special help in reaching safety.
If you can’t escape the fire, move to a room farthest away from the source of the flames. Put wet towels under the door to keep smoke and fumes out. Open a window to let arriving firefighters know where you are.
If you have a fire extinguisher, use it to help people escape. Attempt to fight the fire with the extinguisher only if it is smaller than a waste basket and not growing. Never let the fire get between you and safety. If you exhaust the extinguisher and the fire is not totally out, abandon the effort and get safely out of the house.