Annually in the United States, over 2,500 people are killed and 12,600 people are injured from house fires, with property damage exceeding 7 billion dollars. These statistics are staggering, but it is possible to drastically reduce the risk of a home fire.
The first step to protecting your life and home during a home fire is to understand a fire’s basic features. Fire spreads rapidly, so there is little to no time to call 911 or collect possessions. It only takes 2 minutes before a fire poses fatal risks and just 5 minutes before a home is covered in flames.
Smoke and heat typically cause more fire-related fatalities than fire itself. Smoke can cause serious damage to lungs. Additionally, fire creates deadly gasses that can disorient a person. People often pass out after inhaling smoke. About one-third of fire-related deaths are attributed to asphyxiation.
Fires destroy American homes on a daily basis. However, there are steps that can be taken to prepare for a fire and reduce the risks.
- Fires are extremely fast. You have little time to react to home fires. In less than a half hour, small flames can engulf an entire home. In only minutes, smoke can fill an entire home. Fatal fires often occur while people are asleep. Since fires and smoke spread rapidly, you will have little time to grab some possessions if awakened by a fire. Every minute counts!
- Heat is more threatening than flames. Heat causes more fatalities than flames. Temperatures can exceed 100 degrees near the ground and reach up to 600 degrees near the ceiling. Inhaling smoke from home fires can burn your lungs. Extreme heat often causes clothes to melt on skin. In just under five minutes, extreme heat created by a home fire can cause the objects in a room to ignite simultaneously. This phenomenon is known as flashover.
- Fire isn’t always bright. Home fires create blackout conditions; they are not bright. Fires are initially bright, but spreading smoke creates complete darkness. People awakened by fires are often blinded and become disoriented in the house they’ve resided in for years.
- What you can’t see can kill you. Toxic gas and smoke are the leading cause of death during home fires. Fires consume breathable oxygen and create deadly gasses. Just inhaling a little smoke and toxic gas creates shortness of breath, disorientation, and drowsiness. Colorless and odorless fumes can cause you to pass out before realizing your home is on fire. Sadly, some people never wake up in time to evacuate.
What to Do Before a Fire Occurs
Create and Practice a Fire Escape Plan
If your home is on fire, don’t waste any time exiting your home with family and pets. Every second matters! Take time to develop an escape plan with your family, so everyone knows what to do if the house is on fire.
Practice your fire escape plan at least twice annually. Utilize these tips to develop a family escape plan:
- Develop at least two escape routes for each room.
- If the primary escape route is blocked by smoke or fire, plan an alternative way out of the room. The best alternative route is a window. If the room is on the upper level, place a ladder outside the window.
- Place collapsible ladders recognized by the Underwriters Laboratory (UL) or other reputable scientific labs near windows.
- Ensure windows do not stick, screens can be easily removed, and security bars can be opened quickly.
- Since rooms can be blacked out quickly by smoke, practice exiting rooms by closing your eyes and using your sense of touch to vacate them.
- Ensure exits with security bars have quick release latches. Teach young children how to remove security bars and repeatedly practice in case they panic.
- Since children can be afraid of strangers, instruct them not to hide from firefighters
What to Do During a Fire
- Crawl on the ground before reaching an exit since toxic gas and heavy smoke hovers near the ceiling.
- Exit the house immediately if the fire alarm sounds and you smell or see smoke. Every second counts!
- Use the alternative escape route when smoke blocks the doorway.
- Smoke can be deadly. If it is necessary to exit through smoke, crawl on the ground.
- Do not open a door until you’ve felt the doorknob and door for heat. When hot, exit the house through your alternative escape route.
- If smoke is seeping through the door, exit the house through your alternative route.
- Always open doors cautiously and slowly. If heavy flames or smoke is present, close the door immediately.
- If it’s impossible to reach a person requiring assistance, exit the house immediately and call 911. Inform the emergency operator of the person’s location in the home.
- Inform firefighters immediately if animals are trapped in the house.
- If it’s impossible to exit the house, cover cracks and vents with towels or cloths and ensure the door is tightly shut to limit smoke flow into the room. Call 911 immediately and inform the operator of your location in the house. Signal with a flashlight out the window to notify firefighters of your location.
- If clothes you’re wearing ignite, immediately stop, protect your face, drop to the floor, and roll on the ground until the fire is extinguished. If you cannot utilize this method, use a towel or blanket to smother the fire. If you get burned, immediately run cool water on it for 3-5 minutes and cover the burn with a dry and clean cloth. Seek medical attention immediately.
What to Do After a Fire
It is very difficult physically and emotionally to recover after a home fire. Home fires are always unsuspected, so it’s difficult to know who to consult and what steps to take after a home fire.
Follow these steps if you’re the victim of a home fire:
- If you require temporary housing, medical, or food needs, contact the Red Cross or other disaster relief organizations.
- If you own a fire insurance policy, immediately contact the insurance company and create an inventory of damaged property. If you do not have insurance, seek assistance from private charitable organizations.
- Notify the fire department before reentering your home to ensure it is safe. Be extra careful since fires often cause structural damage.
- Make sure the fire department has disconnected your utilities or deemed the house safe for utilities prior to reentry. Never reconnect utilities without the assistance of a professional.
- Develop a damaged possession and property inventory. Never throw out objects until the inventory is complete.
- Attempt to locate records and important documents.
- Contact the police department if you’re home will be vacant for an extended period of time.
- Retain receipts for fire loss related expenses. These receipts are needed for preparing tax returns and verifying losses with insurance companies.
- Contact your mortgage company to notify them of fire damage.
- Check with the Internal Revenue Service to learn about fire damage tax breaks.
Preventing Fires at Your Home
Fires originating in the kitchen are the primary cause of home fires and fire-related injuries. Indoor cigarette smoking, disregard for fireplace safety, and appliances placed next to combustible objects and furniture also contribute to home fires. Fires that occur during late night and early morning hours are especially dangerous since they smolder and spread while people sleep.
Home fires can be prevented! Follow these steps to significantly reduce the risk of a home fire: Cooking
- Never leave the kitchen if you’re broiling, grilling, or frying food. Turn the stove off if you must leave the house or kitchen, even if it’s for a short time.
- While cooking, wear short and close-fitting clothes and roll up long-sleeved shirts.
- Never cook if you’re tired or under the influence of medication or alcohol.
- Ensure that young children are at least 3 feet away from the stove when cooking.
- Place barbecue grills a minimum of 10 feet from deck railing and the house. Make sure branches or other objects do not hang over the grill.
- Refrain from smoking in the house. Smoking indoors is one of the leading causes of home fires. Extinguish cigarettes in a sand-filled container outside.
- Always ensure cigarette ashes are extinguished completely. If you smoke inside, extinguish ashes in an ashtray. Dowse ashes and cigarette butts in water before discarding them. Do not discard hot ashes or cigarette butts in a garbage can.
- If people have recently smoked in the house, frequently inspect couches and chairs for discarded cigarette butts since furniture can ignite quickly.
- Do not smoke in houses where people use oxygen tanks, even if an oxygen machine is not on. Oxygen is very combustible and increases the size and intensity of fires.
- Never smoke in bed! If you smoke in bed, extinguish cigarettes if you’ve consumed alcohol, taken medications, or are tired.
Electrical and Appliance Safety
- Frayed wires pose fire hazards. Never run cords under furniture or rugs and replace old, frayed, or damaged cords.
- Only purchase appliances endorsed by Underwriters Laboratories (UL) or other accredited scientific laboratories.
- Only use three-prong plugs in equivalent outlets. Do not force these types of plugs into two-slot outlets.
- Be careful when using extension cords. Never overload wall sockets or extension cords.
- Immediately turn off and then have an electrician replace or repair excessively hot light switches or switches connected to flickering lights.
Portable Space Heaters
- Place combustible objects a minimum of 3 feet from portable heaters.
- Only purchase heaters endorsed by the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) or other accredited laboratories.
- Purchase portable heaters that turn off automatically after falling on the floor.
- If you use kerosene heaters, check with the fire department to ensure it’s safe and legal.
- If you use kerosene heaters, use only clear K-1 kerosene in kerosene heaters. Do not overfill heaters, and only use heaters in well-ventilated areas.
Fireplaces and Woodstoves
- Examine and clean chimneys and woodstove pipes once a year and check every month for clogs or damage.
- Do not burn paper, green wood, or trash.
- Utilize a heavy enough fireplace screen to prevent logs from rolling and large enough to cover the opening to keep sparks in.
- Completely extinguish fires before going to sleep or leaving home.
- Place cooled ashes outside in a securely sealed metal can.
- Demystify fire by showing children that it is a tool, not something to play with.
- Lock lighters and matches in cabinets or other locations where children cannot find them.
- Instruct children to never pick up lighters or matches and find an adult immediately after finding them.
- Do not leave children unwatched near burning candles or hot stoves, even for a few minutes.
- Frequently inspect children’s rooms for burned matches and other evidence that they’re experimenting with fire.
More Fire Prevention Tips
- Limit candle use in the house.
- Do not heat the house with a stove or range.
- Replace mattresses manufactured prior to the 2007 Federal Mattress Flammability Standard. New mattresses must meet very strict safety standards.
- Do not store flammable fluids near heat sources.
- Only refuel portable generators outside.