Russ Rauch, Vice-President, USC VFD
Every year, house fires claim the lives of more than 2500 people and cause nearly $7 billion in damages. While the number of house fire deaths are dropping (largely due to fire safety awareness), it’s a number that is still far too high for something that is often preventable.
When it comes to household fires, heroics don’t start with firefighters, they start at home with you. Keep in mind that when discussing this topic, awareness is not enough. To read the following tips and do nothing is a disservice to your family and home. By following and acting upon the tips in this article, you can increase the odds of making sure that a firefighter never has to risk his life running into your burning home, and that if he does, your family will be safe and sound somewhere outside.
Over three-quarters of all home fires come from common hazards. Knowing what these hazards are and how to best prevent them will go a long way towards protecting your family and your house.
Cooking with microwaves, using cooking oil, using fryers— leads to more house fires than any other source. But by far, the greatest factor in kitchen fires is simply unattended cooking. • Never leave the kitchen unattended while cooking, especially when using oil or high temperatures.
• Be sure that all heating elements are turned off immediately after cooking is done.
• Keep combustible items like dish towels and loose clothing away from cooking surfaces.
• Bear in mind that Thanksgiving (and holidays in general) leads the way in terms of most the dangerous single day for cooking fires, so be extra careful.
Heating equipment including your furnace, fireplaces, radiators, space heaters, etc.
• Clean and inspect chimneys and fireplaces once a year. This is the leading cause of heating-related house fires.
• Inspect your furnace each year, changing filters regularly. Consider having air ducts professionally cleaned to prevent the accumulation of dust.
• Never set clothes or shoes on a radiator or space heater to dry.
• Space heaters account for one-third of heating fires. Keep flammable material at least three feet away from the heat source, and make sure the heater is placed on an even and stable surface. Never leave space heaters on overnight or when you leave the house (a good option are timed space heaters that turn off after one to four hours of use). Only use space heaters that have automatic shut off when tipped over.
Electrical equipment including electric appliances, lighting, outlets, and wiring.
• Check all appliances and lighting sources for frayed or damaged cords. Immediately unplug and replace any cords that are found to be frayed or damaged.
• Use tamper resistant (TR) outlets. The average home has 75 outlets, and we all know how kids are tempted to stick things in there. TR outlets utilize small shutters so that only a plug with two/three prongs can be inserted.
• Don’t overload outlets with high-wattage devices. Be especially wary of this in bathrooms and kitchens, and spread out your appliances as best as you can. It is recommended to only have one high-wattage device per outlet.
• If you have regular problems with an outlet or wiring (sparking, frequent blown fuse, constant flickering in lights, etc.), immediately contact an electrician to correct the problem rather than letting it fester.
• For lighting, use bulbs that match or are below the fixture’s maximum recommended wattage.
• Only use extension cords as temporary devices. If you are using an extension cord full-time in your house or garage, install another outlet.
• Don’t run extension cords under rugs, carpet, furniture, etc. Cords can get warm, and if the cord frays or wears out, it poses a fire hazard.
Candles are often seen as the number one fire hazard (they aren’t), but with a few small measures, you cCandles are often seen as the number one fire hazard (they aren’t), but with a few small measures, you can nearly eliminate the chance of a candle-causing house fire.an nearly eliminate the chance of a candle-causing house fire.
• As you can imagine, winter is the most dangerous time for candles, with Christmas and New Year’s Eve/Day being the worst days. Be aware, especially on holidays when wrapping paper is scattered about.
• One-third of candle fires start in the bedroom. Sure, have a romantic evening, but place all candles on a stable surface where they won’t be knocked over.
• Keep candles at least a foot away from anything that will easily burn. More than half of candle fires start because they came in contact with a combustible material.
• Blow out all candles when leaving a room.
• Keep candles out of the reach of children.
Accidents involving children happen frequently. We all know that kids love fire. Combine that with their insatiable curiosity, and you have a potential disaster on your hands. Heed the following tips to make sure your kids stay safe:
• Keep anything with a possible open flame out of the reach of kids, including lighters, matches, and candles.
• Most of the fires in this category are caused by kids under the age of ten who play with matches and lighters. Even if you remove or securely stow away fire sources, it seems as if kids still find ways to play with fire. Most often, they know it’s bad, so they will play with fire in their rooms or closets. Be sure to check on your kids regularly (especially if doors are closed and they are being extra quiet), know how many lighters or match boxes are in the house and where they are, and have a family discussion if you find melted toys or burned spots on clothing.
• The best thing you can do is to teach your children about fire and fire safety. Teach them the human escape plan, the sound of the smoke alarm, and even how to use fire as a tool. When they get old enough, let them help with the fire pit in your backyard or with burning the brush in the fall (if legal in your area, of course). Taking the mystery out of fire is a good way to decrease a child’s curiosity.
Flammable liquids including gasoline, cleaning agents, paints, adhesives, etc. Vapors can ignite from high temperatures or small sparks from static electricity or other sources. Don’t store flammables in the house near a heating source, but rather outside of the house in a cool, well-ventilated area.
Christmas trees and holiday decorations account for hundreds of house fires each year. It’s easy to enjoy how nice everything looks without realizing its potential hazard.
• Christmas trees are the worst offender in this category. Real trees need lots of watering, so keep it in a stand that can hold two to three liters of water and top it off daily. A dry tree with lights that can get hot when left on too long can be a deadly combination.
• Keep the tree away from heat sources, including radiators, fireplaces, space heaters, etc.
• Keep lit candles at least 12 inches away from a Christmas tree.
• If using an artificial tree, make sure it’s flame retardant.
• Ensure that your decorations don’t interfere with your fire escape plan. Do not block windows or doorways, if possible.
• Don’t leave holiday lights on unattended—both on the tree and outside the house. This is a toughie, as we all like to come home to a beautifully-lit house. So, if nothing else, limit them to only a few hours if you’re away. Don’t leave them on overnight or while you’re away for multiple days.
• Check your holiday lights before putting them on the tree or the house. Be sure there are no frays or broken bulbs that could have an exposed element.
• Don’t overload your outlets. As much as your inner being wants to light up the whole world like Clark Griswold, don’t do it! He’s lucky his power outage didn’t turn into a more serious problem.
Clothes dryers can be fire catalysts. Being that lint is a fantastic fire starter, it makes sense that an ill-maintained dryer can pose a serious fire threat.
• While not common these days, refrain from using a dryer that doesn’t have a lint filter. • Clean the lint filter after each load and clean lint from around the drum, and around the lint filter housing.
• At least once a year, check the air exhaust pipe at the exterior of the home to ensure there is no blockage. While the dryer is running, you should feel (and smell) the fresh laundry air coming out.
• Don’t leave the dyer on overnight or while you’re away from the house.
• Don’t overload the dryer, as it can lead to an excess of lint. Many of these tips are common sense, and yet when we have other things on our mind (especially at dinnertime or around the holidays) we can lose track of these basic precautions. You can never play it too safe with fire prevention. The most valuable things in the world—our families and home—depend on it!
As always, the Upper St. Clair Volunteer Fire Department is ready to help and to answer your questions concerning fire safety. For non-emergency questions, call 412-835-0660.