In 2017, 2,812 Americans died as a result of fire, flames, or smoke. This number is up from 2,730 in 2016, and 2,646 in 2015. Despite the rising fatality rate, the actual number of fires in the United States has been steadily decreasing over the last decade. What this shows is that fire safety and technology has improved over the last ten years, to the extent that all but the deadliest fires are prevented.
IN 2016, THE CAUSES OF RESIDENTIAL FIRES BROKE DOWN LIKE THIS:
- 50.3% were a result of cooking accidents.
- 9.6% were caused by heating.
- 6.6% were due to carelessness or were in some way ‘unintentional’.
- 6.5% were a result of an electrical malfunction.
What the above data all show is that fire is actually somewhat predictable in terms of causes and behavior. The implications of this for fire safety are that it can actually be very simple to reduce the vast majority of fire causes in your home.
By going through your home and basement and thinking about common causes of fire, you can avoid most fires that are caused through ‘carelessness,’ and make sure that your home is as safe as possible.
In addition, with a little bit of advance preparation, you can make sure that – even if a fire does start – it is as contained and as harmless as possible.
EARLY WARNING DEVICES
As mentioned above, fires can start in unpredictable ways at unpredictable times.
One of the best ways of preventing a fire from becoming deadly is through early detection.
This means that you should always have smoke alarm systems installed within your home and should test these regularly to make sure they are still active.
The most dangerous part of a home fire is the smoke that the fire causes. This often spreads faster and wider than the fire, meaning that smoke inhalation can affect those in the home before the fire even reaches the same floor.
Smoke inhalation is debilitating, can ultimately be deadly, and also prevents you from being able to navigate around your home.
By the time you see the smoke, therefore, it may be too late. A smoke alarm will give you advanced warning of smoke anywhere in your home, giving you precious time to escape while you still can. This can be particularly valuable if a fire starts at night when you are sleeping.
The National Fire Protection Association (NPFA) recommends that smoke alarms need to be installed on every floor of your home. They should all be interconnected so that smoke in one part of the home alerts all the other alarms.
If you have a large home, you may need to install additional smoke alarms so that you can hear the warning in all parts of the house. The NPFA recommends that you test your smoke alarm every month and replace any smoke alarm that is older than 10 years. In general, the more modern a smoke alarm, the better.
In terms of location, your smoke alarms should be on the ceiling.
If this is not feasible, then the higher you can place it on a wall, the better. If you are deaf or hard of hearing, you should also investigate light alarms or vibrating pillows/mattresses to make sure you are awoken by an alarm.
CARBON MONOXIDE ALARM
Carbon Monoxide is also a major cause of death and is closely related to home fire safety. Installing carbon monoxide alarms is mandatory in many states.
Carbon monoxide is particularly deadly because it is an odorless, colorless gas. Carbon Monoxide is caused by fuels burning incompletely. It is particularly dangerous to the young and senior citizens.
Carbon Monoxide alarms should be installed on every level of your home and in a central location (i.e. not on the ceiling or high on the wall). Like a fire alarm, all carbon monoxide alarms should be connected.
You should also regularly test your carbon monoxide alarms. If you hear the alarm sound, you should immediately evacuate your home, moving to a location with fresh air. Open the doors and windows and wait for emergency services before re-entering your home.
You should also have all fuel-burning heating equipment checks once a year (ideally in advance of the cold weather).
Older or faulty equipment is the major cause of carbon monoxide, so it’s best to update or upgrade your heating system when needed.
FIRE MITIGATION MATERIALS
Although the first option in the event of a fire should be to evacuate, in some circumstances, it is possible to extinguish a fire before it spreads.
Since most fires are caused while cooking, many start small and can be caught before they cause too much damage. Making sure your home has an adequate number of fire extinguishers is a crucial first step in this respect.
You should have a fire extinguisher on every floor of your home, and they should always be placed in an easy-to-reach location. Having to hunt for a fire extinguisher totally removes the advantage of having one.
You should also factor in size when it comes to fire extinguishers; smaller ones have smaller canisters, and therefore fewer flame-retardant chemicals inside, although this makes them easier to maneuver. You can also install a fire sprinkler system in your home.
Fireproof paint is a cheap and easy way to make your home safer. This paint (which actually functions more like a glaze) provides an additional surface between the fire and any flammable materials in your home.
Most fire-resistant paint has a 1 or 2-hour fire protection guarantee, which should be more than enough time to allow you to escape your home. If you have a lot of exposed wood in your home (and you don’t want to replace it) a fireproof coating is a great way to make everything safer.
Fire doors provide an effective seal between rooms, preventing a fire from easily accessing the oxygen it needs to grow. Fire doors are heavy doors that should remain closed at all time (many have hinges that automatically close it).
These should always be left closed, otherwise they are ineffective. Installing these, particularly between the basement and your home can also do a great deal to buy time in the event of a fire.
Since evacuation is always Plan A during a house fire, you should make sure that you have as many different fire escapes as possible.
Moreover, you should discuss with your family and other housemates about the plan for evacuation.
Most modern household goods are designed to be as flame retardant as possible. For example, most mattresses made since 1990 are far more flame resistant than their older models. Within your home, take note of when the objects in your home were made.
If they are outdated, it’s much safer to upgrade or update. Most items like mattresses come flame resistant as a matter of course, so it’s not as if you are required to pay a premium.
PREVENTING ELECTRICAL FIRES
Electrical fires can be dangerous within a home because of how quickly they can spread. Furthermore, electrical fires cannot be put out with water.
Water can actually cause electrical fires to spread even faster. As a result, you should run an inspection of the wiring within your home on a regular basis.
When checking the wiring, the first place to examine is the home’s electric panel. Check to see if there are any obvious signs of damage (frayed wires, smoke marks, etc.).
If you see any, then you should call in a professional, as attempting to fix it yourself could be dangerous and may cause damage (or even start a fire).
Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters (AFCIs) are designed to detect and prevent faults in the electrical system from being a source of fire. They are effectively more advanced versions of the standard circuit breaker.
Installing an AFCI will help you avoid a common cause of the fire, particularly electrical fires that start deep within the wiring (and therefore are not detectable until it is too late).
If you do not have one of these installed in your home, then you may be at risk. Traditional overcurrent protective devices don’t detect low-level arcing currents, meaning an AFCI gives you an additional level of protection.
FIRE PREVENTION THROUGH HOUSEKEEPING
One of the best ongoing tasks you can undertake to minimize the risk of fire is housekeeping.
Tidying your home will mean that there are fewer loose objects that can catch fire and that, if a fire does start, there will be less fuel for it to spread.
TIDY ALL FLAMMABLE MATERIALS
Flammable materials such as oily rags should be stored in an airtight container. A small spark can be enough to ignite an oily rag, and this can be all it takes for a major blaze to start.
In addition, your basement should not be where you store trash.
In effect, trash (and particularly recycling) serves as excellent fuel for a fire; storing it in the basement means you are turning your home into a giant bonfire.
Take your trash out regularly or store it in a part of your home not directly connected with the main building.
Similarly, if you store gasoline in any part of your home, it should be well away from the main house.
Gasoline is one of the most flammable items you can possess and can ignite extremely quickly. Make sure any gasoline containers are airtight and have no leaks, and do not be tempted to bring gasoline into your home (including the basement).
LINT IN DRYER
Every time you do the laundry, you should remove the lint from your dryer. Because of the heats attained by your dryer, it represents a potential fire hazard, and lint can serve as the fuel to grow the blaze. Dryer vent cleaning should also be something that you do every 6 months to a year.
Every six months or so, you should also check the connections on the dryer to make sure they are free from lint, and that any foil or ducting material is either in full working order or has been replaced with something less flammable.
Checking your dryer should be a regular part of your ongoing home maintenance (along with the smoke alarms and other utilities and appliances).
Fire is one of the most viscerally scary things to imagine within a home. It seems particularly insidious because it doesn’t require a lapse in security (as with a burglary) or advanced warning (as with a flood or hurricane).
Fire can genuinely strike at any time and can affect any type of home. This means that preparation is additionally important if you are to keep your family as safe as possible. By following the steps above, you will have eliminated most of the common fire risks in homes and basements.
The next step is to make sure that if a fire does start, you and your family can get to safety as quickly as you can. For smaller fires, this may also involve extinguishing it yourself to prevent it from becoming a larger fire. The aftermath of a fire is also an important time for safety with proper fire damage restoration techniques.
By being conscious of the risks, and the patterns that fire takes, you can be as well prepared as possible to eliminate the risk of fire, mitigate before it grows, and to evacuate if you can’t contain the fire. In all of these cases, advance preparation is key in dealing with what can be an unpredictable – but not random – phenomenon.
SOURCES AND FURTHER READING