Guide to Fire Safety

The importance of fire safety and prevention cannot be overstated. Although the annual fire-related death rate has fallen more than 20% in recent years, thousands of people in the U.S. lose their lives due to fires every year. Additionally, data from the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) indicates that structural and vehicular fires caused nearly $11 billion in damage last year alone.

As costly and potentially deadly as fires are, a little bit of prevention goes a long way. This text discusses the fundamentals of fire safety, including a comprehensive look at fire risks, effective fireproofing methods, and ways to prepare yourself and others before a fire occurs.

Information on Home Fire Risks

Numerous fixtures and appliances throughout your home can cause a fire to occur. We’ve listed some of the most common household fire hazards (grouped by their typical location within a home), as well as effective techniques for mitigating the risk of a fire in your residence.

Kitchen Risks and Unattended Cooking

According to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), cooking fires are one of the greatest threats to household fire safety. ‘Unattended cooking’ was the culprit in most of these incidents. Roughly 67% of these fires occur when food or cooking substances are ignited and then spread to other flammable areas of the kitchen (such as wooden countertops, floors, or furniture in adjacent rooms); clothing was the ignition source less than 1% of the time, but these cases were responsible for roughly 16% of cooking fire-related deaths. Gas ranges and ovens were responsible for 56% and 18% of reported cooking fires, respectively, and more of these fires occurred on Thanksgiving Day than on any other day of the year.

To effectively safeguard against cooking fires, the USFA recommends the following measures:

  • Never leave cooking food unattended; stand near the pan, and turn off the burner if you need to leave the kitchen.
  • Position pots and pans so other people won’t accidentally bump the handles.
  • Watch for signs of excessively high temperatures, such as smoke or boiling grease.
  • If a fire starts, use the lid of a pan or a baking sheet to cover the flames and extinguish the blaze.

Risks in the Bedroom

The USFA notes that roughly 600 people lose their lives every year as a result of fires that originate in bedrooms. Some of the most common culprits in these cases include:

  • Overloaded extension cords and outlets: An electrical fire may occur when too many devices are simultaneously powered by the same cord or outlet. You should also make sure there aren’t any cords pressing against the wall; this can cause a build-up of heat strong enough to ignite a blaze.
  • Combustible appliances: Space heaters and other devices used to generate heat should never be positioned too closely to clothing, curtains, sheets, or other fabric-rendered materials able to ignite on contact. At least three feet of space between appliances and flammable materials is necessary. If you use a heated blanket or other electrical device in bed, make sure it’s “lab-approved” and equipped with an emergency shut-off function if it tips over; also inspect the item to check for frayed wires or cords.
  • Unsafe practices by children: Children are responsible for more than 35,000 fires every year, and roughly 400 kids under the age of 10 lose their lives in residential fires on an annual basis. In many cases, children start fires while playing with matches or lighters in their bedrooms; parents should restrict their child(ren)’s access to these combustible items, and educate them about fire safety to ensure they won’t be playing with them in their bedrooms.
  • Smoking in bed: According to the USFA, more than 1,000 smokers are killed by fires caused by cigarettes in their home every year ― and many of these blazes originate by individuals who smoke in bed.

Risks In The Living Room

Fireplaces

According to the USFA, roughly one-third of American households rely on a fireplace, wood stove, or other type of fuel-based heating appliance ― and in most of these cases, the unit is located in the home’s living or family room. Coincidentally, heating units are responsible for roughly one-third of all U.S residential fires.
Here are some ways you can mitigate the risk of using a fireplace or woodstove in your house:

  • Schedule annual inspections and chimney cleanings with a licensed specialist
  • Keep the hearth clean of burned wood, ashes, and other potentially combustible debris
  • Leave doors open while the fire is burning to facilitate combustion and prevent creosote from building up inside the vents; close these doors when the fire is not burning to keep carbon monoxide and other fumes from entering your home through the chimney
  • Use the mesh screen to prevent embers and other smoldering material from escaping the hearth
  • Measure the temperature of your flue with a stovepipe thermometer to ensure the chimney isn’t getting too hot
  • Apply fire-resistant materials to the walls surrounding the fireplace or stove
  • Never use lighter fluid or other flammable liquids to start a fire indoors; also avoid burning trash or cardboard
  • Use “seasoned hardwood,” and avoid any wood that is too soft or wet because it can exacerbate creosote build-up
  • Position logs at the rear of the fireplace, and keep the fires small to avoid producing too much smoke
  • Finally, never leave a burning fire unattended; if the fire is still smoldering, pour several cups of water until the ashes are drenched and there is no more smoke.

Air Conditioners

Living rooms are commonly chosen as the location for air conditioner units. Although USFA statistics have found that air conditioner-borne fires cause fewer deaths (five per year, on average) and injuries (60 per year) than other residential fires, they are still responsible for nearly $24 million in property damage. Here are two tips for safeguarding your air conditioning units against fire-related risks:

  • In roughly 45% of all air conditioner fires, a centrally located unit was to blame. However, portable units and fixed local units are collectively responsible for more than half of these fires. Closely monitor all operating air conditioning units in your house to ensure the equipment is working properly.
  • Not surprisingly, most air conditioning fires occur between 2 and 8 p.m. Keep an eye on your A/C unit during the hottest times of the day.

Christmas Trees

Additionally, living rooms are often the chosen location for Christmas trees, candles, and other holiday decorations – all of which pose a fire risk. The USFA notes that electrical lights and cords are responsible for one in three Christmas tree fires. While not as common, these fires tend to be deadlier than other types of household blazes; one out of every 40 Christmas tree fires causes at least one fatality, while, on average, one death is reported for every 142 household fires. It’s very important to keep all cords and wires from getting tangled, and to make sure your outlets and power strips aren’t too overloaded.

Candles

December is also considered the “peak month” for candle fires; more than half of these blazes start when a combustible object is positioned too closely to an active candle flame. However, many households use candles in different rooms of the house throughout the year ― and according to USFA data, an average of 42 candle fires are reported each day.
The following practices will help you reduce the risk of a candle fire in your home:

  • Never leave burning candles unattended. One-fifth of candle fires start due to neglect, while another 12% occur when residents are sleeping; half of all candle fire-related fatalities happen between midnight and 6 a.m.
  • Forego flaming candles in exchange for battery operated candles and/or air fresheners ― but as mentioned above, make sure these devices do not have frayed cords and that they are not plugged into overloaded outlets or power strips
  • Position flaming candles in sturdy holders to prevent them from toppling over
  • As a rule-of-thumb, position candles at least one foot from any combustible materials
  • Do not burn candles in your bedroom or sleeping area
  • Always avoid burning candles in areas where medical oxygen is present

Risks In The Bathroom

Although bathrooms often contain cleaners, solvents, cosmetic materials, prescription medications, and other items considered hazardous (especially to children), these areas are not particularly dangerous when it comes to fire safety. However, there is one notable exception: electrical appliances. Hair dryers and curling irons pose potential fire risks because they conduct heat; for this reason, these devices should never be positioned near towels, linens, or other combustible materials when plugged in. These and other bathroom appliances (razors, toothbrushes, etc.) can also cause an electrical fire if their cords are frayed, or the outlet used to power them is overloaded.

Risks In The Basement and/or Utility Room

Although other large electrical appliances (such as air conditioners and space heaters) may be found throughout the house, most homeowners keep their washer and dryer units in either the basement or utility room of their residence. Dryers pose the greatest fire risk; USFA reports that nearly 3,000 residential fires caused by dryer units are reported each year, and these cases account for five deaths, 100 injuries, and roughly $35 million in property damages.

The following measures will help you decrease the risk of your dryer unit causing a residential fire:

  • Regularly empty the lint tray and keep the interior of the dryer unit clear of debris; failure to keep dryers clean is the leading cause of fires that originate this way.

    • Dust, lint, fabric fibers, and individual garments are all listed as the items most commonly ignited first during dryer-caused fires.
  • Be particularly attentive to your dryer during the fall and winter months, when electrical units expend more energy in order to produce heat.

    • January is the “peak month” for dryer fires.
  • More than half of all dryer fires do not spread beyond the unit, but be sure to keep the surrounding area free of chemicals and combustible materials.

Natural Disasters

In the event of an earthquake, flood, tornado, hurricane, or other natural disaster that causes property damage, the following fire risks may be present:

  • Electrical appliances, candles, and other items that may fall and break
  • Ruptured gas lines, damaged propane tanks, and vehicles with leaking gas tanks
  • Pools of water that may cause a fire to ignite when they come into contact with electrical appliances or outlets

If a natural disaster strikes your home, the following precautions will help you prevent additional fire damage:

  • Immediately clean up any gas, paint thinner, lighter fluid, or other flammable liquid spillage
  • Turn off all power to the house by accessing the main breaker, and disconnect any appliances or fixtures currently plugged into an outlet or power strip
  • Evacuate everyone in your household immediately if you notice a gas-like smell, which may indicate a leak ― and even if you don’t detect a gas leak, never use candles or other open-flame devices for lighting purposes
  • If you choose to operate a generator or other fuel-based appliance, only do so outdoors to prevent carbon monoxide from entering your home
  • Avoid using gas ranges, or other appliances for heating your home; this is not only a fire hazard, but also a powerful source of deadly CO fumes
  • Check all battery-powered smoke detectors and other sensors to ensure they are working properly

Wildfires

Wildfires are another consideration for individuals who reside in rural dwellings or heavily forested areas. If your area is prone to forest fires, these preventative measures can help you mitigate the risk of property damage:

  • Maintain regular contact with the local fire department, especially during peak fire season (June through October) when temperatures are high and humidity low
  • Keep driveways obstacle-free to give fire trucks and other response vehicles easy access to your home
  • Immediately report any tell-tale signs of wildfire (smoke plumes, lightning strikes, etc.) to the local authorities
  • Establish several escape routes that will allow you and your family to evacuate your home in a timely fashion, and consult your neighbors to form a neighborhood evacuation plan
  • Locate a viable water source outside the house (such as a pond, well, swimming pool, or fire hydrant)
  • Keep a stockpile of household items that could work as firefighting tools, such as rakes, shovels, garden hoes, chainsaws, and buckets

When a wildfire is approaching your home, USFA urges the following steps in order to evacuate the residence safely and quickly:

  • Park your vehicle in a safe place (a garage, if available) and position it to face your escape route
  • Contact a friend or relative about lodging if a hotel room is out of your budget, and if necessary, make arrangements to board all of your pets
  • Your clothing should consist of durable footwear, a long-sleeved shirt made from heavy material (such as cotton or wool), long pants, and a handkerchief to cover your face. Make sure everyone else is dressed accordingly.
  • If time allows:

    • Secure all doors, windows, and vents
    • Remove lightweight or combustible drapes, curtains, and other window coverings
    • Open the fireplace damper and close the doors and/or screen
    • Rearrange each room so all flammable furniture and fixtures are gathered in the center
    • Turn on one light in each room; this will allow your house to be visible after dark if the smoke gets too heavy
    • Seal attic and basement vents with non-flammable covers
    • Shut off propane tanks and make sure all combustible outdoor items (i.e., patio furniture) are not too close to the house
    • Connect your garden hose to the outside water tap, set up a sprinkler system on your roof to wet the shingles, and dampen any shrubs or other botanical growth surrounding your property

USFA lists the following items as essential components of an emergency supply kit for wildfire situations. Before fleeing your property, make sure you’re in possession of the following:

  • Three days’ worth of water and an equal amount of non-perishable food
  • An extra pair of shoes and change of clothing for everyone in your party
  • One sleeping bag and blanket per person
  • A first aid kit, including any prescription medications
  • A battery-operated flashlight and radio, with extra batteries
  • An extra set of car keys and enough cash or plastic to sustain your family for an indefinite period
  • Sanitary supplies, such as toilet paper, diapers, and dry hand soap
  • Birth certificates, wills, insurance forms, and other important documents housed in a folder to prevent them from getting creased or torn

Causes of Residential Electrical Fires

The statistics for residential electrical fires are startling.The NFPA reports that roughly 47,000 fires resulting from malfunctioning or improperly installed electrical appliances are reported each year, and these cases (on average) result in 455 deaths, 1,518 injuries, and $1.48 billion in damages. In addition to malfunctioning appliances, roughly half of all electrical fires are caused by poor electrical distribution. Here is a breakdown of the leading factors behind these fires:

  • Unclassified wiring (15%)
  • Problematic outlets or receptacles (6%)
  • Branch circuit wiring (5%)
  • Malfunctioning fuses or circuit breaker panels (3%)
  • Frayed extension cords (3%)

Tips on Fireproofing Your Home

In addition to the practices listed above, there are other measures you can take to lower the risk of a fire igniting in your home and destroying your property (or worse). The following three components are not only strongly recommended, but may be required by law in your city or state of residence.

Fire Extinguishers

The USFA currently recognizes five different classes of fire extinguisher:

  • Class A extinguishers put out fires that ignite combustible materials like cloth, wood, rubber, and paper
  • Class B extinguishers put out fires that involve lighter fluid, cooking oil, grease, oil-based paint, and other flammable liquids
  • Class C extinguishers put out electrical fires caused by malfunctioning equipment or appliances plugged into an outlet or power strip
  • Class D extinguishers put out fires involving flammable metals; unless you have a working metal shop in your home, this model will probably be unnecessary for your residence
  • Class K extinguishers, also primarily used by commercial establishments, put out fires involving vegetable oils, animal fats, and other substances used in cooking; these are suitable for residences with large kitchens
  • There are also hybrid extinguishers, such as B-C and A-B-C models, that can put out a wider range of fires

Most experts agree that homeowners should keep at least one extinguisher on each floor of their house. However, you’ll want to ensure that each floor is equipped with the correct extinguisher. A Class C extinguisher, for instance, may help suppress a fire in the kitchen, but a Class B or Class K extinguisher will put out a cooking fire much more quickly and effectively.

Fire extinguishers require routine evaluations to ensure they are in proper working order. When checking your extinguisher, make note of the following:

  • Location: The extinguisher should be located in an easily accessible area that isn’t blocked in or hidden by furniture or doorways
  • Pressure: This may be indicated by a gauge located on the exterior of the tank; for models that don’t have this feature, consult the owner’s manual or contact a licensed extinguisher specialist
  • Condition: The hose, nozzle, and tank should be rust- and wear-free; also check to make sure debris hasn’t gathered inside the hose and nozzle
  • Cleanliness: The outer surface may gather oil or moisture, depending on where it is located; be sure to wipe off any residue that has collected on the exterior of the tank

Additionally, you should shake the extinguisher once per month to break up the powdery fire retardant material located inside the tank. If the extinguisher does not meet any of these requirements, you should purchase a new model as soon as possible.

It’s important that everyone in your house is trained to use the extinguisher in the event of a fire. The NFPA teaches this skill using the acronym PASS:

  • Pull the pin of the extinguisher; don’t release this mechanism until the extinguisher is secure in your arms with the nozzle pointing away from your body
  • Aim low, toward the base of the fire
  • Squeeze the lever slowly and gradually
  • Sweep the nozzle in a horizontal motion

The USFA notes that you should only use an extinguisher to put out fires that are contained to a single object, such as a pan of cooking oil or a garbage can. Additionally, these devices should only be used if you and your household members are safe from smoke inhalation, and you have the means to evacuate the house quickly in the event the fire is not completely suppressed.

Smoke Alarms and Detectors

According to the USFA, there are two general classifications for all smoke alarms used today:

  • Ionization smoke alarms measure particles in the air to detect the presence of smoke
  • Photoelectric smoke alarms gauge the presence of smoke using beams of light

Both are proven to be effective under different circumstances, and homeowners are urged to either have both in their house or to purchase a hybrid model that uses ionization and photoelectric detection methods.

Additionally, there are two types of smoke alarm in terms of power: battery-operated models and alarms hardwired into the home’s electrical system. Since a power outage could render hard-wired smoke detectors inoperable, a hard-wired model is only recommended if it comes with a back-up battery function. It’s important to monitor the battery life of each detector; maintain a supply of nine-volt batteries so you can replace dead batteries as needed. Some models will be outfitted with a long-life lithium battery; these cannot be replaced, and you’ll need to purchase a new alarm as soon as the battery dies (most have a lifespan on 10 years). Typically, smoke detectors cost between $10 and $20 apiece.

You should install at least one smoke detector on each floor of your house, as well as one in each bedroom and other “key areas” like the kitchen and the basement. Since both smoke and carbon monoxide rise, the alarms should be installed either on the ceiling or high on the walls. Please note that, in some cities and towns, local fire officials will install smoke detectors in your home free-of-charge.
To properly maintain your smoke detector, follow these guidelines:

  • Conduct a monthly test by pressing the button or triggering the temporary alarm mechanism; virtually all models are equipped with this feature to allow such tests
  • Replace the batteries once a year (for nine-volt models and hard-wired alarms with back-up batteries)
  • Replace the entire unit every 8 to 10 years

Residential Sprinkler Systems

Schools, commercial properties, and other public buildings are required by law in most cities to feature a fully operational sprinkler system. Many homeowners have also chosen to install these implements. The USFA notes that residential sprinklers offer the following benefits:

  • Quick Response: Residential sprinklers are designed to react to smoke much faster than industrial or commercial models
  • Affordability: At present, most residential sprinklers are priced at roughly $1.61 per square foot of construction; in total, it’s likely that you’ll spend between 1% and 1.5% of the total cost of your house on an effective sprinkler system
  • Low Water Usage: Current sprinkler systems are fit with pipes designed to conserve water, and some may be connected to the residence’s water supply; additionally, when a fire is detected, only sprinklers over the smoke or flames will activate
  • Simple Installation: Sprinklers use parts that take up little space, and most systems require minimal effort to install; some models are designed for DIY installation, while others will require a licensed technician

In addition to these three implements, you can safeguard your home against fire danger by regularly inspecting all electrical and gas-powered appliances and fixtures to ensure they’re in working order. A checklist of these items is recommended, and should include the following (depending on what is in your home):

  • Any motor vehicles kept in your garage or driveway
  • Oven/range
  • Central heating and air conditioning units
  • Space heaters and portable A/C units
  • Toaster, blender, and other kitchen appliances
  • Television and other home entertainment equipment
  • Computers and laptops
  • Lamps and lighting fixtures
  • Hair dryers, curlers, and other bathroom accessories
  • Vacuums, irons, and other electrical household appliances
  • Lawnmowers, chainsaws, and other gas- or oil-powered tools
  • Barbecues, propane tanks, and other gas or electrical items kept outdoors
  • All cords and wires that power your appliances and tools

Finally, you can safeguard your home from the threat of wildfires by creating a fireproof buffer zone around your property. According to the USFA, the following steps can be taken to create such a barrier:

  • Rake all leaves, twigs, branches and other flammable vegetation from the yard and (if applicable) beneath the house; dispose of these materials off-site
  • Maintain a space of at least 15 feet between the crowns of any trees on your property; also cut any branches that hang over the roof or chimney, or are located within 15 feet of the ground
  • Remove all vines from the exterior of your house
  • Mow the lawn regularly
  • Clear a 10-foot space around your barbecue, propane tanks, and other combustible items located on your patio
  • Soak ashes from your stove, fireplace, and barbecue in a metal bucket for at least 48 hours, and then bury them in your soil.
  • Store all flammable materials in safety cans, and keep them away from the base of your house
  • Keep firewood on an uphill slope at least 100 feet from the house
  • Follow local burning regulations, and strictly observe any ‘burn bans’ in your area

How to Prepare Your Family for a Fire

By identifying fire dangers, purchasing essential fire prevention tools and equipment and effectively fireproofing your home, you’ll greatly reduce the risk of property loss and injury or death of a household member. However, you will never be able to completely remove this potential hazard ― and for this reason, it’s important to rehearse fire situations with your family before they occur. This section will discuss measures you can take to effectively prepare your loved ones for a fire-related emergency.

Escape Plans

In order to properly determine a fire evacuation strategy, the USFA urges you to take the following measures:

  • Create a detailed blueprint of your home, including all levels and rooms, doors, and windows
  • Obtain a collapsible ladder to be used in the event of a fire, and (if applicable) store it on one of your upper floors
  • Sit down with your entire family and instruct them on the best course of action when a fire ignites; establish a primary escape route, as well as one or two alternates if the primary route is blocked, and a meeting place in a safe location outside the house
  • Explain that everyone should evacuate the house immediately if a fire occurs; if there is smoke, demonstrate ways your children can crawl to safety
  • Regularly rehearse this plan by staging fire drills, both during the day and at night

Fire Safety Education for Kids

In addition to a fire escape plan, it’s important to teach children proper fire safety. Instruct them to never play with matches, fluid lighters, gas ranges, or other flame-producing items in the house. Also teach them about the warning signs of a fire, such as smoke and heat. The following websites are geared toward kid-friendly fire safety tips and strategies:

Evacuating Disabled Individuals

If one or more members of your household have a permanent disability that affects their mobility, motor skills, or cognitive functions, then you’ll need to address these factors during your fire drills as well. The same rule applies for caregivers who are charged with disabled individuals. The USFA recommends the following practices for safe evacuation of disabled persons:

  • Individuals with mobility issues are safest on the ground floor of their home, in a bedroom that is relatively close to an easily accessible exit
  • People who rely on a walker or wheelchair should maintain obstacle-free paths to the exit from all rooms of their residence
  • If needed, install exit ramps and/or widen doorways to make evacuation even easier
  • If the disabled individual is incapable of doing so, then a capable person should install and monitor smoke alarms, and check all appliances and tools on a regular basis

High Rise Buildings

If you live in a high-rise building, dormitory or apartment-style housing on a college campus, or fraternity or sorority house, then by law a fire escape plan must be established. A mapped evacuation route will most likely be posted in at least one location on each floor. If you’re unsure about the protocol for when a fire breaks out in your on-campus residence, then you should consult your resident advisor (RA) or campus housing officer. You can help reduce fire risks in these buildings by making sure fire exits and doors that lead to hallways or stairs are never locked. If a fire occurs, exit the building as quickly as possible and contact the fire department as soon as you’ve reached a safe location outdoors.

By taking all of these precautions, you can effectively safeguard your property ― and more importantly, your loved ones ― from fire risks and hazards. If you have questions specific to your city or neighborhood of residence, please contact your local fire department for more information.