For almost a century, the week in which Oct. 9 falls has been recognized by the firefighting and fire prevention community as Fire Prevention Week.
President Calvin Coolidge gave the week national designation in 1925, to commemorate the Great Chicago Fire that started on Oct. 8, 1871, but did most of its damage the following day. The National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) is the week’s ongoing sponsor of the week, which this year Oct. 4-10.
NFPA attaches a theme each year, and this year’s is, “Hear the beep where you sleep: Every bedroom needs a working smoke alarm.”
According to NFPA statistics, half of all home fire deaths in the U.S. occur at between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., when people are most likely to be sleeping. Nevertheless, three out of five U.S. home fire deaths happen in homes with no smoke alarms or no working smoke alarms, according to NFPA vice president of outreach and advocacy Lorraine Carli.
“Smoke alarms can make the difference between life and death in a fire by alerting people in time to escape safely,” Carli said. “But they need to be installed in all the required locations – including all bedrooms – and they need to be working.”
City of Houston Fire Chief Joey Moore said working smoke alarms greatly reduce the risk of death by fire in a home.
“In fact, having a working smoke alarm cuts the chances of dying in a reported fire in half,” Moore said. “And when it comes to smoke alarms, it’s about ‘location, location, location.’”
Moore said it’s important to install working smoke alarms in every bedroom, outside each separate sleeping area and on every level of your home (including the basement). Larger homes may need more alarms.
“If there is a fire in your home, smoke spreads fast,” Moore said, “and you need smoke alarms to give you time to get out.”
The NFPA says your smoke alarm has the power to save your life.
“Or does it?” Moore said. “If you haven’t tested your smoke alarm lately, it may not be working. And that’s a risk you can’t afford to take. Working smoke alarms give us early warning of a fire, providing extra time to escape safely. But they can’t do their job if we haven’t done ours – monthly testing to make sure they’re working.
“Test all the smoke alarms in your home – for the life of the alarm and for the lives of your loved ones.”
Moore said if you’re not sure your smoke alarms are working, then you also can’t be sure you’ll be protected if a fire breaks out.
“Don’t gamble with your life and assume your smoke alarms are working,” he said. “Test each one, every month, so you’ll know they’ll be ready to protect you and your family if there’s a fire.”
Obviously, testing alarms takes time, but Moore said spending a few minutes each month to do so is worth it.
“Can you afford not to?” he said. “Going without the protection of a working smoke alarm is a risk too dangerous to take. In a fire, you’ll need every second to get out safely, and the early warning from a smoke alarm can make the difference between surviving a fire and dying in one.”
Raymondville Fire Department Chief Mike Jackson said families should also consider “exit drills in the home,” or E.D.I.T.H.
“Our department has information available and more education is also available on the NFPA website as well, but it covers families planning safe exit routes and practices in case of fires,” Jackson said.
With the changing seasons at hand, having your home’s chimney cleaned out before using it is one of the easiest methods to avoid a structure fire, Jackson said. He also said taking care regarding portable heating devices is important.
“With the dropping temperatures, more electric or space heaters will be used and it’s critical that the appropriate precautions and safety measures are used such as checking the electrical cords for damage before use, making sure they have clearance around them for use and also that children understand the safety precautions as well, just to name a few,” Jackson said. “Also, with the falling leaves trying to keep debris away from the perimeter of your house can limit possible fuel for brush fires that can easily turn to structure fires. There are multiple factors that will increase the chances of structure fires as we get closer to the holidays and colder temperatures and everyone needs to stay vigilant to their fire safety and surroundings.”
TIPS FOR FIRE PREVENTION IN RURAL AREAS
People who live in rural or forested areas should be aware of other procedures that could prevent a wildfire from burning their homes. Mark Twain National Forest (MTNF) assistant fire management officer Greg Painter, of Houston, said being proactive is integral to prevention.
“If people can prep around their homes, it can save us from having to do things that take time,” Painter said, “and time is sometimes something you don’t have a lot of when a wildfire is nearby.”
MTNF zone fuels technician Mike Kelly, of Houston, said it’s not always about dousing flames, but keeping them from reaching houses and buildings.
“Clean up ‘fuel’ in the area, like leaves, brush or trash,” Kelly said, “and don’t have wood stored or stacked next to your house. If a wildfire comes, it’s going to want to get to that. Leaves under your deck might just sit and rot, but if a fire comes through, that’s the perfect spot for a problem. An ember might land in the leaves, and the next thing you know your deck’s on fire and then your house.”
Kelly pointed out that MTNF personnel are not well equipped to deal with structure fire. Most of what they do involves using heavy equipment and hand crews to make fire lines that prevent wildfires from spreading through brushy or forested areas.
“We fight fire by using control lines and burning fuel out,” Kelly said. “We only have one fire engine and we don’t use a lot of water. Our engine carries 300 gallons and that can go pretty quick.”
Sometimes reaching a home can be difficult to impossible for forest service of rural fire department crews.
“If you have a narrow driveway with one little turn-around spot, it’s hard to get a big truck in there,” Kelly said. “So you want to do everything you can to make it so you never need a big truck.”
Kelly said wildfires threaten residential areas more now than ever, because of the high level of “wildland-urban interface” (WUI).
“Every year it increases because more and more of what has typically been green area is turning into dwelling places,” Kelly said.
HOME FIRE SAFETY TIPS
(from City of Houston Fire Chief Joey Moore)
•The best way to prevent a fire is to conduct an inspection of your home.
•Store only the minimum amount of any combustible material in your home, and keep it in the original, or a UL approved container.
•Teach your children proper evacuation techniques in case of a fire. Practice family fire drills, with a meeting place outside (by the tree in the front yard, or at the mailbox or front gate. That way you will all know that everyone is safely outside. Never go back into a house on fire.
•Never store oily rags, especially rags saturated with mineral spirits, paint thinners, or linseed oil. Under certain conditions, these materials may spontaneously combust (start on fire without any known source).
•Do not block doors or windows that may be needed to escape fire.
•If you suspect or notice electrical problems or strange odors, don’t hesitate to have them checked by a competent person.
•Add a fire extinguisher to your kitchen and near your grill.
•If you notice flickering lights, or intermittent power surges. These conditions may be caused by outside influences, but if they occur often, they may indicate a bad connection or a short in the circuit.
•Note breakers that trip, or fuses that blow frequently. This is almost always a sign of an overloaded circuit or other wiring problem, usually of a most serious nature.
•Be very careful in any situation where you use an extension cord for extended periods of time. Often, foot traffic, moving furniture, and other hazards damage these cords, causing a potential for a fire.
•Check the LP gas system in your home. You will want to look for loose fittings, leaking valves, faulty pilot lights, and debris or improperly stored flammable materials in areas near these appliances. Check the vent stacks on gas water heaters and furnaces for obstructions.
•Check stove vent hoods and clean the filter regularly.
•Check the power cords for your appliances and replace or repair them if defects are found.
•Clean, or have cleaned, your interior AC coils, and replace your return air filters regularly.
•Keep the lint trap and outside vent clean in your clothes dryer. Some dryers have internal ductwork which may become clogged and require servicing, so if the dryer is operating poorly, have it checked. Lint or other material collecting near the heat coils in clothes dryers is extremely dangerous.
Be careful with space heaters
•Keep flammable materials (curtains, the couch) a safe distance (usually 3 feet) from portable heaters.
•Set heaters where they are not in the traffic flow of the room.
•As a rule, extension cords are not recommended with space heaters.
•Use space heaters only on solid, firm surfaces. They should never be placed on tables, chairs or other places where they may tip over. Replace old space heaters with ones that will automatically turn off if tipped over.
Maintain your fireplace correctly
•Inspect the fire box (hearth) for cracks, damaged sheet metal (for inserts) and other hazards.
•Use glass fire doors or a wire mesh spark screen to prevent embers from popping out of the fireplace.
•Burn dry, seasoned wood to prevent creosote buildup in the chimney.
•When you remove ash place it in a metal continer and then place it outside away from any buildings
•Have your chimney inspected and cleaned at least once a year.
•Clear leaves and other debris from gutters, eaves, porches and decks. This prevents embers from igniting your home.
•Remove dead vegetation and other items from under your deck or porch, and within 10 feet of the house.
•Screen or box-in areas below patios and decks with wire mesh to prevent debris and combustible materials from accumulating.
•Remove flammable materials (firewood stacks, propane tanks) within 30 feet of your home’s foundation and outbuildings, including garages and sheds. If it can catch fire, don’t let it touch your house, deck or porch.
•Wildfire can spread to treetops. Prune trees so the lowest branches are 6 to 10 feet from the ground.
•Keep your lawn hydrated and maintained. If it is brown, cut it down to reduce fire intensity. Dry grass and shrubs are fuel for wildfire.
•Don’t let debris and lawn cuttings linger. Dispose of these items quickly to reduce fuel for fire.
•Inspect shingles or roof tiles. Replace or repair those that are loose or missing to prevent ember penetration.
•Cover exterior attic vents with metal wire mesh no larger than 1/8-inch to prevent sparks from entering the home.
•Enclose under-eave and soffit vents or screens with metal mesh to prevent ember entry.
For more information about fire safety and tips for homeowners, log onto www.firewise.org.
National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) website: