The Emergency-Free Home - Home fire prevention and protection

Many home fires have nothing to do with gadgets or appliances. Both the simplest and the most complex of our daily amenities can be fire hazards. Extremely flammable liquids provide power for our cars. Fabrics and upholstered furniture can ignite and burn. Some of us carry fire sources, matches or cigarette lighters, in our pockets.

In the sections that follow, effort will be made to call attention to the most important of these hazards.

Matches, Lighters, and Cigarettes

Some prohibitions that help to immunize your home against accidental fires are matters of common sense. Others have more technical origins.

Some 140 young children die each year in fires that they or their friends or siblings started. Children start thousands more home fires while playing with matches or lighters. Thus a basic rule is that children should not have access to either matches or cigarette lighters. Both should be kept out of sight and reach.

Adults should never use either matches or lighters as toys or sources of amusement. Cigarette butts should not be left burning in ashtrays that children can reach.

Ashtray and cigarette discipline is always appropriate. Lighted butts should not be thrown into the trash. A lighted butt can start a major fire. Ashtrays should not be placed on the arms of chairs, where they can be knocked off. As a precaution, check the furniture where smokers have been sitting to make sure that no lighted cigarettes have fallen unnoticed behind or between cushions or under furniture.

In a recent year, 46,700 mattress and bedding fires took some 700 lives. Thus, “No smoking in bed” represents a cardinal rule of home safety.

Furniture Precautions

Because many home fires start on pieces of furniture, you should take special care when selecting the items you need. In particular, you should look for furniture designed to reduce the likelihood of furniture fires that may be started by cigarettes.

This task has become simpler in recent years. Manufacturers are making upholstered furniture far more fire resistant than they have in the past. All furniture that meets the standards of the Upholstered Furniture Action Council (UFAC) carries a gold-colored tag with red letters that states, “Important Consumer Safety Information from UFAC.”

Other precautions help reduce the risks of injury or death from furniture fires. For example, look for upholstery fabrics made primarily from such thermoplastic fibers as nylon, polyester, acrylic, and olefin. These resist ignition by burning cigarettes better than do rayon or cotton, both cellulose fabrics.

Flammable Liquids

The federal Hazardous Substances Act establishes three labeling categories for liquid products:

1. Extremely flammable liquids include gasoline, the white gas commonly used in camping stoves, contact adhesives, and wood stains that produce ignitable vapors at room temperature. Once ignited, the vapors act as wicks to carry the fire to the container of the liquid.

2. Flammable liquids produce ignitable vapors at higher temperatures. This group includes paint thin-ners, some paints, and automotive products such as brake fluids.

3. Combustible liquids can be ignited but are less likely to catch fire than the other kinds. This category includes furniture polishes, oil-based paints, fuel oil, diesel oil, and kerosene.

Remember: some products do not carry flammable labels because they will not catch fire in liquid form as they come from the container (such as paint strippers). Once they are applied, however, they become quite flammable because their flame-suppressant chemicals evaporate.

Use solvent-based products with adequate moving air ventilation, and ventilate the work area. These precautions will keep fumes from building up and igniting. They will also protect you from the toxic effects of invisible and sometimes explosive vapors.

Wise Use of Flammable Liquids

At one time or another, nearly everyone has to use flammable liquids. Here are some fundamental rules for wise use:

  1. • Never use such liquids near flames or a source of sparks, including pilot lights.
  2. • Use gasoline only as a fuel, not as a cleaning fluid.
  3. • Always shut off power mowers, chain saws, or other gas-powered equipment before refueling them. Refuel outdoors and wait for hot parts to cool before adding fuel.
  4. • Use only liquids identified as charcoal starters to get charcoal fires going. Never pour on additional fluid after starting the fire.

Proper Storage

Gasoline and other extremely flammable liquids should be stored outside your house or apartment, but they should not be stored in the trunk of your car. Children should not be able to reach your safe-storage place. For added insurance, lock up all flammable liquids.

Never keep gasoline in glass bottles, plastic jugs, or other makeshift containers. If possible, invest in a gasoline container with such safety features as a pressure release valve or a flame arrester.

Flammable Fabrics

There are four basic safety principles regarding the flammability of fabrics:

1. All fibers used in ordinary clothing can burn. But some catch fire and burn less readily than others. The more-fire-resistant fabrics are fire-resistant cotton, wool, rayon, polyester, and modacrylic. Fabrics that burn most readily are acetate, untreated cotton and rayon, and linen.

2. The way in which a fabric is made determines the way it burns. As a rule, heavy, tightly constructed fabrics ignite with difficulty and burn more slowly than fabrics that are light, open, or fuzzy. Once ignited, however, the heavier fabrics burn longer than the lightweights and can cause very serious injuries.

3. “Flame resistant” does not mean “noncombustible.” The phrase only indicates that a fabric is designed to resist ignition and burning. Fabrics are incapable of providing you with protection if you reach into a fireplace, a wood-burning stove, or an oven. To maintain a fabric's flame-resistant qualities, follow the manufacturer's instructions regarding care and cleaning.

4. A garment's style has much to do with safety. The safest clothes are those that fit closely, have large neck openings and quick release closures, and are wrap-style.

Remember the three rules for extinguishing a clothing fire:

1. Don't run.

2. Do try to remove the burning article of clothing.

3. If that fails, drop to the floor or ground and roll back and forth.

Smoke Detectors

There are two basic rules regarding smoke detectors. First, every home should have at least one smoke detector, approved by a recognized national testing laboratory. Second, at least one smoke detector should be placed on each floor of your home.

Both types of detectors, ionization and photoelectric detectors, if well designed and engineered, are effective. The particular layout of your home may determine whether you need plug-in or battery-powered devices. Both have advantages and disadvantages.

The battery-powered smoke detector can run out of power, usually after about a year. It then gives a warning sound, at which time you need to install new batteries.

The plug-in detector operates like a permanently burning lamp. However, it cannot operate if fire or some other interference breaks the electrical circuit that powers the detector. Other tips:

  1. • Place detectors high up, on a ceiling or wall, close to where people sleep. Otherwise the alarm may not be heard.
  2. • Never place a smoke detector in the kitchen or very near it. Airborne kitchen grease and cooking fumes can easily activate the device, touching off a false alarm.
  3. • Even if a battery-powered detector does not give a signal that its batteries are running down, change the batteries at least once a year.
  4. • With a photoelectric detector, the light source should be replaced as soon as it burns out.
  5. • Test photoelectric detectors regularly with real smoke—from a just-extinguished candle, for example. Test ionization detectors using a lighted candle. Test detectors every two to four weeks.

Fire Extinguishers

Fire extinguishers complement your smoke alarms and should be part of your home “immunization” program. The extinguishers should be kept in areas where fires are most likely to occur: the kitchen, home workshop, or rooms where flammable materials are kept, where people may be smoking, or where there are hazard-producing activities or materials.

Fire extinguishers are rated according to size. A five-pound extinguisher rated ABC (meaning it can be used to fight fires of any kind) is considered minimal for home protection. Many homeowners, however, buy two-and-one-half-pound extinguishers specifically to fight small kitchen fires.

The best protection against home fires may be a common garden hose. Using extensions, it can be made long enough to reach every room in the house. You can also attach nozzles that make it possible to sprinkle, spray, or direct a solid stream. Keep the hose in one place so that it is always ready to use.

An Escape Plan

Fire causes most home emergencies, but other conditions can be just as disastrous. An accident outside the home may force immediate evacuation; so may natural disasters such as storms or floods.

An escape plan should be part of your program for immunizing your home against emergencies. The plan can save lives by preventing panic.

For Fires

In cases of fire, you need to have two exits from each part of the house. You may want to consider installing rope or chain safety ladders outside windows that are too high above the ground for safe jumping. If you live in an apartment, you should obtain escape instructions from your building management or landlord or your local fire department.

Through informal fire drills, you can help to ensure that each member of your household understands the escape plan. You should include small children in all rehearsals, and repeat them periodically. Everyone should know where they are to meet to be sure everyone got out safely.

Young children should understand clearly that they have to evacuate when everyone else does. They must escape; they cannot hide under a bed or in a closet.

Three rules are critically important:

1. Stay low . Since most smoke rises, you need to keep low, crawling on hands and knees when necessary, to pass safely through a smoke-filled hallway or room.

2. Feel doors before you open them . If you find that the door panels, the knob, or the molding surrounding the door are hot to the touch, it may mean that the fire is just outside. Move toward another exit.

3. Use wet cloths . To avoid excessive smoke inhalation, a major cause of fire-related deaths, you can wet pillow cases, towels, or other fabrics and hold them over your face while you make your way to an exit.

For Natural Disasters

In case of natural disasters, you need to obtain accurate, current information as well as warnings, advice, or instructions from agencies. Disregarding such instructions or advice can endanger you and your family.

Your home should be equipped with a battery-powered portable radio. The radio could mean the difference between disaster and survival if your power is interrupted. You should have spare, sealed-in-the-package batteries for the radio. To prolong their lives, you can keep them in a refrigerator freezer.

Other avenues of communication in an emergency are available in most communities in the United States. These include amateur radio, citizens’ band (CB) radio, community disaster warnings, special signals and communications methods, and (of course) the telephone.

Amateur radio or “ham” operators have proven to be unusually helpful in emergencies. To locate such an operator in your community, you can inquire among your neighbors or write, enclosing a self-addressed, stamped envelope, to the Amateur Radio Relay League, 225 Main St., Newington, CT 06111.

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