One of my earliest memories involves watching a television show that highlighted real-life rescue missions around the United States. In this particular episode, the dramatization of the event showed firefighters breaking into a house and running upstairs to where the family lay sleeping. On their way up, they passed a green, plastic dinosaur that was melting on the stairs. At that point in my young life, I hadn’t ever considered a house fire affecting children as well as adults.
Fast forward 25 years, and I had my first experience with a house fire impacting someone that I knew and loved. This elderly friend lived in the same house that her father had used as a small store in the 1930s, and though well-maintained, it fell short where the electrical was concerned. In her circumstance, a spark from an outlet ignited the insulation inside of her walls, and her entire house burned down to the basement in about four hours. Thankfully, she and her animals were unharmed, but the reality of losing everything that she owned was shocking and overwhelming.
According to statistics, people who are 65 and older are at a substantially higher risk for fatalities in house fires than people younger than 65. The rate of deaths due to house fires increases exponentially the closer you get to 75 and 85 years old, and the most tragic part of all is that many of these deaths could be prevented entirely.
Luckily, there are some pretty simple ways that you can protect yourself and your aging loved ones from a house fire.
In the Kitchen
The kitchen is one of the most common places for house fires to start, so that’s where we’ll begin. In your kitchen, unplug any unused appliances, and keep all cords away from cooking surfaces whether or not they are in use at that moment. Only use the oven and stove for cooking – never use them to keep your house or kitchen warm, and make sure to stay in the kitchen when you’re cooking. Last but not least, use a timer whenever possible, so you don’t have to worry about food burning on the stove or in the oven.
Around the House
Check your outlets each month as part of your routine maintenance. Steer clear of plugins that create additional outlets as these can overload the original outlet. If you notice that any of your outlets or plugs feel warm, you get a shocked feeling when touching them, or you hear a burning or sizzling noise, unplug all appliances carefully or flip the breaker and call a certified electrician.
Heaters are often the cause of house fires, so you should pay particular attention to them. Only use space heaters when you’re in the room and awake, and keep them out of your walking path. Keep everything at least three feet away from them – including mementos, pictures, bedding, and clothing. Also, have your fireplace and gas heaters inspected yearly by a certified professional.
Lights are another potential fire hazard to keep your eye on. Make sure that you use the correct wattage for your lamps, and unplug any lights immediately if you see any scorch marks or smell anything burning.
Cords can become a significant fire hazard if they are neglected. Many baby boomers and people who lived throughout the Great Depression know and live by the motto, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without,” but this should never apply where electrical cords are concerned. Throw damaged or frayed cords away, and do not try to repair them yourself. Also, don’t use rugs or windows to keep cords in place or out of the way. Make sure that they have ample space around them and are visible for easy inspection at all times.
What Else Can I Do?
Prevention is the best way to keep yourself and your loved ones safe from a house fire.
In addition to the tips described above, make sure that you have smoke detectors installed in each bedroom, hallway, and main living area, and check them monthly. They should be installed high up on the wall, at least four inches from the ceiling, or on the ceiling at least four inches from a wall. In addition, they should be installed three feet from any doors, windows, or vents.
There are a few different kinds of smoke detectors available on the market today, and it’s important that you install those that comply with current standards.
- Photo-electric: This kind of smoke detector is better for recognizing smoldering fires because the larger smoke particles disrupt a light sensor which causes the alarm to go off. Smoldering fires can be particularly dangerous because they can fill a space with toxic gases like carbon monoxide before you even know there is a fire. You will know if your smoke detector is photoelectric if there is a “P” on the back of it.
- Ionization: The ionization smoke detector, on the other hand, is better at alerting you to fast-moving fires because the smaller particles disrupt a current flowing between two electrically charged plates. Your smoke detector will have an “I” on the back if it is an ionization model.
- Combination: Combination photoelectric/ionization smoke detectors are a relatively new technology, but they provide you double the protection. The National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) suggests that you either have both types of smoke detectors next to each other or a single combination detector at each location. There is no way to predict which type of fire you might encounter in your home, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.
- Accessibility: If someone in your house is hard-of-hearing, smoke detectors are available that can alert them as well. Some come with extra loud speakers, talking options, and flashing strobe lights.
You should also make and practice a fire escape route, making sure that you have at least two different exit routes for each room in your house. Also, be sure to keep your home and walkways clean and clear of tripping hazards so that you can get out easily and help can get in.
In the event of a fire…
- Stop, drop, and roll if your clothing is on fire.
- If you aren’t able to get down to the floor, use a heavy blanket to smother the fire on your clothing or whatever is burning. Be careful not to fan the flames, however.
- Keep your fire extinguishers in working order, and know how to use them. In the event of a fire, stay calm, and use a sweeping motion to put out the flames.
- If the fire is on the stove, cover the flame with a heavy lid and turn off the stove.
- If none of these options puts out the fire, leave the house immediately and call emergency services.
With the right education and preparation, house fires don’t need to result in death or injury. Inspect your house regularly and practice appropriate fire safety techniques to prevent disaster.
If you have aging loved ones who can’t inspect their home properly, make sure to assist them with this process and help them make the necessary preparations so that they can prevent fires and know how to stay safe in the event that one occurs.