Approximately 4,000 Americans die each year in fires, and more than 20,000 are injured — often because of lack of awareness of how dangerous fires are and how quickly they spread. That’s why knowing the basic facts about fires is so important.
Fire spreads quickly. It can take fewer than 30 seconds for a flicker or a flame to get completely out of hand and turn into a major fire. A house can fill with life-threatening black smoke and flames in minutes, leaving no time for making a phone call or grabbing valuables.
Smoke and toxic gases can be more threatening than flames. Most fires happen when people are asleep. Instead of being awakened, however, the poisonous gases released by the fire may make them fall into a deeper sleep. Asphyxiation, caused by the inhalation of smoke and odorless, colorless toxic gases, is the chief cause of fire deaths, exceeding burns by three to one.
Heat is deadly. Fires can generate intense heat – up to 600 degrees in minutes. This heat can scorch your lungs and melt clothing to your skin. Sometimes the heat from a fire causes everything in the room to ignite at once; this is known as “flashover.”
Fire is pitch black. Although flames from a fire are bright, they quickly produce black smoke and total darkness, making it difficult to find your way out of your house.
- Install smoke detectors, and check them once a month. Place smoke alarms on the ceiling or high on the wall (up to 12 inches from the ceiling) on each level in your house, including outside bedrooms, at the top of open stairwells, at the bottom of enclosed stairways and just outside the kitchen.
- Consider having your local fire department inspect your home for fire hazards, prevention and safety.
- If you live in the city by a back alley, consider installing address numbers on the back of your house so emergency personnel can locate it easier.
- Keep A-B-C-type fire extinguishers in your home; check regularly and know how to use them.
- If possible, install an automatic sprinkler system in your home.
- Insulate chimneys and have them inspected yearly.
- Place spark arresters on the roof surrounding the chimney.
- Use caution when using space heaters, and make sure they are at least three feet away from upholstery, curtains and other flammable items.
- Never leave space heaters unattended.
- Call the utility company if you smell gas; they will dispatch professionals to check for leaks.
Open Sources of Flames
- If you have a fireplace, have it swept and inspected annually to prevent buildup of creosote, which can ignite and cause your house to catch on fire. Use a fireplace screen at all times, and keep all flammable items, including rugs, away from the hearth area.
- Use caution when burning candles, particularly during large gatherings (or refrain from using them altogether, especially if children or pets are present). Never leave candles unattended, and extinguish them if you feel sleepy or are using medication that can make you drowsy.
- Keep matches and lighters away from children’s reach, preferably under lock and key.
- Never smoke in bed or when drowsy. Use only deep, sturdy ashtrays, including outdoor areas, particularly for persons who smoke outside. Cigarettes and cigars should be doused with water first if being disposed of in the trash.
- Never use flammable liquids (including gasoline, kerosene and lighter fluid) indoors.
- Use only approved containers for flammable items. Store them in cool, well-ventilated areas away from sources of combustion and out of reach of children and pets.
- Never launder or store rags that have been soaked in flammable liquids after you have used them; discard only in sealed, outdoor metal containers.
- Ask an electrician to check your electrical wiring, especially if your house is old or if you frequently blow fuses.
- Keep extension cord use to a minimum and make sure prongs are fully plugged in.
- If you must plug in two or three items using the same outlet source, use a UL-approved multiple-plug-in unit to prevent sparks and short circuits and to protect against power surges.
- Check all cords for frayed or exposed wires.
- Make sure outlets are secured with cover plates.
- Do not run cords or wiring under rugs, over nails or in highly traveled areas.
- Use caution when cooking; it is the leading source of fires in homes.
- Never leave stoves or other sources of fire unattended.
- Avoid wearing long sleeves and loose-fitting clothing or accessories.
- Keep towels, pot holders and curtains away from the stove or flames.
- Make sure all cooking surfaces are free of grease.
- Take care when cooking with oil to avoid burns from spattering grease.
- Use a lid to smother any fires that erupt in cooking pans. (Never use water on a grease fire.)
- Keep a kitchen fire extinguisher handy (under the sink or in a closet).
- Turn off and check all kitchen appliances before going to bed or leaving the house.
- Never use your stove to heat your home.
Fire Safety Tips
- Plan and practice escape routes for each room in your home with your family; make sure you have two methods of escaping every room in the house. Employ the same measures for your surroundings when traveling or staying with family and friends.
- Teach family members to stay low to the ground (where the air is less hot and toxic) and crawl along the floor in the event of fire.
- Make sure you can open all windows, and install fire-safety opening features on the inside of any window security gratings or burglar bars.
- Consider purchasing escape ladders for upper levels.
In the event of a fire:
- Escape first, then call for help. Time is of the essence.
- Do not use elevators; take the stairs instead, or if blocked, exit through a window.
- Carefully check closed doors (with the back of your hand only) for heat before opening them.
- Do not open a hot door; try escaping through a window instead. If you can’t exit from the window, hang a white or light-colored sheet from the window so that firefighters can find you.
- Open a cool door with caution, and check for fire and smoke before escaping through it. If your escape route does not appear safe, close the door and check alternative escape routes, including windows. If the area is clear, leave immediately and close the door behind you.
- If there is smoke, get down near the floor and crawl till you reach your exit. Continue to close doors behind you to block heat, smoke and flames.
- Do not re-enter the building once you have made it out safely. Instead, call 911.
- Call 911 or your local emergency number.
- Cover burns and follow the instructions in “What To Do in a Medical Emergency.”
- Perform CPR for smoke inhalation.