Fire in the Home
American homes suffer an unwanted fire every 10 seconds, and every 60 seconds they suffer a fire serious eough to call the fire department. Most importantly, every two and a half hours someone is killed ina home fire - that's over 3,500 people killed in 2000 alone. Another 20,000 people are injured in home fires in a typical year.
Protecting your family from fire requires advance planning for what to do if fire strikes. This includes the use of protective devises, usually smoke alarms, to provide early warning of fire, especially at night when they are most vulnerable. However, depending on the size and layout of your home and the characteristics of your family, you may need to do more to assure their safety. This site has been written to provide the information you need to decide what you must do to protect your family from fire.
The Dangers of House Fires
Most home fires occur in the kitchen while cooking and are the leading cause of injuries from fire. However, they are often extinguished with only minordamage since a person is genrally present. Common causes of fires at night are carelessly discarded cigarettes, sparks from fireplaces without spark screens or glass doors, and heating appliances left tooclose to furnityre or other combustibles. These fires can be particularly dangerous because they may smolder for a long period of time beforebeing discovered by sleeping residents.
Most victims of fire succumb to the smoke and toxic gases and not to burns. Fire produces poisonus gases that can spread rapidly and far from the fire itself to claim victims who are asleep and not even aware of the fire. Even if residents awaken, the effects of exposure to these gases can cloud their thinking and slow their reactions so that they cannot make their escape. This is why it is so crucial for you and your family to have sufficient warning so that you can all escape before your ability to think and move is impaired. In addition, more than half of fatal fires in homes occur when people are alseep-this represents only a third of a 24-hour dar. Therefore, any fire protection system must be able to protect people who are asleep in their bedrooms when fire starts.
Furthermore, nearly half the people killed in home fires each year are either preschool children or adults 65 years old or older. Add people with physical, mental, or emotional handicaps, and it is clear that home fire protection must be designed for people with limitations. That is why every fire safety program should include provisions for people with special needs.
Children and Fire
Children playing with matches or lighters are a leading cause of home fires and one in which the children and others present are often hurt. Children have a natural curiosity about fire and are tempted to play wiht matches or lighters left within their reach. In many cases, children who start fires have a history of firesetting. Many fire departments offer counseling programs for juveniles who set fires. If your child is setting fires, you should contact your local fire department for information about counseling before the situation gets out of hand and your child gets hurt. Nevertheless, the most important think you can do is to keep all matches and lighters out of the sight and reach of children. Store them up high, preferably in a locked cabinet.
Even though they have a natural curiosity about fire, children may become frightened and confused in a fire and hide rather than escape to safety; especially if they started the fire. Children are often found hiding in closets or under beds where they feel safe. Therefore, it is crucial for your child's safety that you hold fire drills in the home at least twice a year to let them practice the right things to do in a fire emergency.
Clothing fires are a significant cause of fire injuries to children (and to adults too). They set their clothes on fire by getting too close to heat sources such as open fires or stoves, or when playing with matches or lighters. Here too, the best defense is a respect for fire and training in what to do if their clothes do catch fire. Their natural reaction is to run-which will make the situation worse. STOP, DROP, and ROLL is taught as the correct action and has saved many lives in clothing fires. The moment clothes start to burn, stop where you are, drop to the ground, cover your face with your hands and roll repeatedly to smother the flames.
Of course, young children should never be left alone in the home. Even if they don't play with fire, unattended children can accidentally start a fire by attempting to cook something or by using a heater or electical appliance in the wrong way. All too often, tragic fires occur when young children are left unattended, for even short periods.
In the 1970’s, the hazards of accidental ignition of sleepwear on young chil-
dren were addressed through Federal legislation. The Flammable Fabrics
Act required that children’s sleepwear (sizes 0-6X) be flame retardant. In a
shor t time, this had a dramatic impact on deaths and injuries, reducing
them by 95%.
Recently, an increase in injuries has been reported among children sleeping in garments classified as “daywear” such as tee shir ts and jerseys. These garments look just like sleepwear but are not fireretardant. The only way to tell the differ- ence is by careful examination of the garment label. Therefore, parents should be careful to buy only fire retardant sleepwear for their children in order to enjoy the fire safety benefits of these garments
Fire and Older Adults
The risk of death from fire for Americans age 65 and over is two times greater than the risk for adults under 65, and hospital stays of more than 40 days are common for older burn victims. Thus, older people need to be especially careful with fire. People can become victims of fire by falling asleep smoking, either in bed or in a favorite chair, especially af ter consuming alcohol or taking medication. Ashtrays emptied before smoldering materials are completely out also start a number of fires in homes of smokers. Cooking is a major cause of fire injuries among older persons when loose fitting clothing is ignited as the wearer reaches over a hot burner, or slips and falls onto the stove.
One of the most important fire safety devices for the home is the smoke alarm. After becoming generally available in the early 1970's home smoke alarm sales grew rapidly and the price fell, so that by 1991, 88% of US homes had at least one, and alarms could be purchased for under $10.
Several studies have concluded that when working smoke alarms are present, the chance of dying from the fire is cut in half. The smoke alarms currently in place have saved thousands of lives, but several problems exist. First, the 12% of homes without alarms have more than half of the fires; second, it is estimated that a third of the smoke alarms in place are not working, often due to failure to replace a worn-out battery; and third, many homes do not have as many smoke alarms as are needed to protect the occupants properly.
How Many Alarms are Needed?
The primary job of a smoke alarm is to protect you from fires while you are asleep. Thus, your alarms should be located between any sleeping persons and the rest of the hosue-outside bedrooms or sleeping areas. But tests conducted in the 1970's clearly showed that this might not be enough.
In multi-story homes, fires on a floor level without a smoke alarm can grow to dangerous conditions before sufficient smoke can rise in a stiarway to set off an alarm on the upper floor. Based on this observation, most codes require that additional smoke alarms be located on each floor level of the home.
A closed door provides protection from smoke on the other side, but will also prevent smoke from reaching a smoke alarm. This is par ticularly a problem in bedrooms. If you sleep with your bedroom door closed, you should add a smoke alarm in the bedroom; par ticularly if you smoke in the bedroom or there is a TV, air conditioner, or other major appliances in the bedroom that might star t a fire. If you sleep with the bedroom door open, the alarm in the hall outside will detect a fire in the bedroom or elsewhere.
There are a few places where a smoke alarm should not be placed. These include kitchens and garages (cooking fumes and car exhaust are likely to set them off) and unheated attics and crawl spaces (where it can get too cold or hot for the electronics to work properly). Fires beginning in these areas are generally detected by the other smoke alarms in enough time to escape safely. If an alarm is desired in these spaces, heat detectors are avail- able. But remember that the smoke alarms are the primary safety devices in any home protection scheme.
What Kind of Smoke Alarms Should You Get?
There are two basic types of smoke alarms available; the ionization type and the photoelectric type. The ionization alarm reacts faster to open flam- ing fires and is usually the least expensive. The photoelectric alarm reacts faster to smoldering fires and is less likely to react to cooking. You should consider getting one or more of each type of alarm, since there is no way of
predicting what type of fire might occur in your home. There is also an alarm
that combines the features of both the ionization and photoelectric smoke alarms into one unit. It is called a “dual sensor” smoke alarm. For the best pro- tection, the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) recommends installing either the dual sensor alarm or a combination of
ionization and photoelectric alarms in every home. All of the above smoke alarms should be replaced no later than ten years af ter their installation.
protect_family4There are also multiple ways to power smoke alarms. Most operate on a battery (usually 9 volt), which should be replaced at least once a year. When the battery needs changing, the smoke alarm will begin to “chirp” every 20 seconds or so; this will persist for a month. This is most likely to start in the middle of the night (when the temperature in the house drops) causing you to get up and remove the battery so you can sleep. To prevent this nuisance you should pick a special day and give your alarms new batteries once a year. Some fire safety organizations promote “change your clocks, change your batteries” when the change is made back from daylight savings time each fall. Always make sure that you use the right battery—the required battery type is marked on the alarm near where the battery goes. Smoke alarms installed in a house may be operated from the household electrical power and not need battery replacement.
This type of alarm has a “power on” light to tell you that the alarm has power. Smoke alarms are available which run on house power but also have a battery in case the main power fails. Both types of alarms need to be tested monthly and batteries should be replaced yearly just as with the battery-only operated type.There now are available long-life smoke alarms that last for up to ten years. They are different than the alarms described above in that their batteries do not need to be changed every year. However, they still need to be tested on a regular basis and should be replaced between eight and ten years of their initial installation.
How Should Your Smoke Alarms be Installed?
Smoke alarms should always be installed according to the manufacturer's directions. In general, smoke alarms are installed on the ceiling or high on the wall. Alarms should be installed no closer than 3 feet from supply registers of forced air heating systems (that might blow on the alarm preventing it from exposure to smoke) and no closer than 3 feet from the door to a kitchen or a bathroom containing a shower (steam can set the alarm off when the door is opened). Alarms should be no closer than 3 feet from supply registers of forced air heating systems (that might blow on the alarm preventing it from seeing smoke) and no closer than 3 feet from the door to a kitchen or a bathroom containing a shower (steam can set the alarm off when the door is opened). If an alarm is mounted on an exterior wall or a ceiling below an unheated attic that is poorly insulated (the sur face gets noticeably cold in the winter and warm in the summer), the temperature difference can prevent smoke from getting to the alarm. Placing the alarm on an inside wall avoids the problem. In deser t climates where evaporative coolers are being used,
mount smoke alarms on walls 12 inches below the ceiling. These coolers add moisture that can cause the smoke to drop. Older adults may have difficulty reaching alarms on ceiling to change batteries. If hard-wired alarms are impractical, wall mounting 12 inches down should be considered.
Will You be Able to Hear Your Alarms?
The ultimate test for smoke alarms is their ability to wake you when you are asleep. This generally means that the nearest alarm to the bedroom can be no fur ther away than in the next room with the intervening door open. Hard-wired alarms can be connected together (with a wire) so when one alarm activates, all interconnected alarms go off. Many alarms in new homes have this feature. It means any alarm in the home can awaken you in your bedroom if the nearest alarm is loud enough to do so. For homes with battery-powered alarms, there are models that contain a radio transmitter that will activate a receiver that can be placed in the bed- room. An advantage of this type is that, when you go vacation, you can give the receiver to a neighbor who could call the fire depar tment if a fire star ts. Of course, these are a lot more expensive than the simple alarms. All battery-powered and most hard-wired smoke alarms use a high-pitched electronic horn which is difficult for some people to hear. Test alarms before installation to make sure that all members of the household can hear them clearly. People with hearing impairments can get smoke alarms with bright, flashing lights or vibrating signals. To awaken you, the light needs to be over the head of the bed and should be rated at least 110 candles. Such bright lights must be powered from house power, so if it is battery operated, it is probably not bright enough to use in the bedroom.
Testing and Maintenance
Smoke alarms should be tested at least once a month. All smoke alarms have a test button that you push to check out the entire alarm, including its sensitivity (how much smoke it takes to set it off). If the testing mechanism does not work properly, the alarm should be replaced immediately. Never use open flame devices to test an alarm. Older adults and the physically impaired may have problems reaching their alarms to test them. There is one brand of smoke alarm on which the test feature can be activated by shining a flashlight on it. Another brand has an automatic test that activates at the same time and day, once a week. These models can be used where proper testing might not otherwise be done.
Smoke alarms need no maintenance other than changing batteries (in those that have batteries) and an occasional vacuuming of dust or cob- webs. Every smoke alarm comes with a homeowner booklet, which describes how to use and take care of that par ticular alarm. You should read that booklet and keep it in a safe place for future reference. What if Your Alarm “ACTS UP”? Smoke alarms are highly reliable but can sometimes be fooled by cooking or steam. If it sounds when there is no fire, it may need to be moved a few feet to a new position where it is not in the way of cooking vapors or steam. It may also have insects in it, so you should take it down and vacuum it out. If it continues to act up, simply replace it with a new alarm. They are inex- pensive and can be purchased at any local hardware store.
How Long Should Your Smoke Alarms Last?
Smoke alarms have a useful life of about 10 years. At that age they should be replaced, even if they seem to be working. This will assure that the alarm will be working when you need it. Even though today’s smoke alarms are less expensive than you might have paid some years ago, today’s alarms are more reliable. Thus, it is usu- ally not wor th keeping an old alarm rather than buying a replacement.
Fire Alarm Systems
A home fire alarm system is usually part of a total security system providing burglary protectionin addition to fire protection. Such a system supervises doors, windows, and spaces within the home for break-in and may provide monitoring services by dialing your telephone to report a fire or intrusion to a security office, where it will be reported to your local police or fire department. Due to their relatively high cost, these systems are generally found only in larger homes. The systemcan cost $1000 or more to install, with 24-hour monitoring service adding $15 to $20 per month.
Components of the System
These systems consist of a central control panel to which smoke alarms and heat detectors are connected, along with bells or horns that are activated when the system triggers an alarm. Other sensors associated with the burglary functions connect to doors and windows or monitor rooms for motion or body heat. The control panel operates from house power but also usually contains an emergency battery which can operate the system for about 24 hours during a power outage. The basic requirements for the number and locations of alarms are exactly the same as with the self-contained alarms discussed previously. The dif- ference is that a fire alarm system gives you more flexibility to locate addi- tional alarms and additional bells or horns (or flashing lights, should a person in the household be hearing impaired). Fire alarm systems that provide remote monitoring services can also be used to provide medical aler t services. Here a person with health problems who lives alone carries a radio transmitter that can trigger the system in case they need assistance. Signals received at the monitoring station are identified by type (fire, burglary, medical alert) so that the proper response can be made.
Why Have a Residential Fire Alarm System?
The primary advantage of a home fire alarm system is increased reliability and the ability to place alarms and bells exactly where needed. However, the reason most people have them is that they wanted a burglar alarm sys- tem and the cost of adding fire alarm features to a residential burglary sys- tem is relatively small. Another advantage is that they are the only way to obtain remote monitor- ing services. This becomes impor tant in cases where family members may not be capable of escaping from a fire without assistance. For example, if you have an older or physically impaired person in your home and a fire star ted when no one was home to assist thatperson, alarms alone might not be enough to assure their safety. A feature of most monitoring services is the ability to keep special infor- mation on the residence which comes up on the computer screen whenever an alarm is received from that home. Thus, if there is a disabledperson in the home who needs special assistance, this fact will be known to the operator and can be passed along to the fire depar tment when it is called.
Smoke alarms can only warn of danger. You must then take action to escape. Unless you act quickly and effectively, the extra warning time pro- vided by alarm scould be wasted. The best way to assure that your family will do the correct things in an emergency is to have an escape plananed practice it. The important factors in a home fire evacuation plan are:
Immediately leave the home-Do not waste any time saving property. Call the fire department (Use 9-1-1 if available) from a neighbor’s home. Take the safest exit route, but if you must escape through smoke, remember to crawl low under the smoke.
Know two ways out of each room - If the primary way out is blocked by fire or smoke, you will need a second way out. This might be a window onto an adjacent roof or
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