Fighting fire with fire prevention


Whether your house is old or new, when you think about safety, you're usually thinking about keeping intruders out. But there's a dangerous intruder that kills or injures more than 65,000 people a year in their homes -- and it comes from inside, not out.

The intruder is fire, and it strikes an estimated 2.6 million residences a year in the United States, according to the Washington-based U.S. Fire Administration.

But homeowners are not without weapons in the battle against fire damage and casualties. There are many steps you can take to protect your home and family.

In fact, deaths from residential fires have been declining -- down 33 percent between 1977 and 1992. The drop is credited to an increase in the number of smoke detectors. The number of homes with detectors rose 85 percent in the same period, according to First Alert of Aurora, Ill., which claims to have developed the residential smoke detector in 1964.

Most locales these days have laws mandating a certain distribution of smoke detectors in a home. Often the requirement is one detector per level, but it makes sense to have more than one -- in fact, it makes sense to have a lot of them. They're not expensive or hard to install, and the cost of upkeep is no more than a yearly supply of fresh batteries.

For maximum coverage, you should install smoke detectors in each bedroom, in the hallway outside each bedroom, above stairwells and in every room that presents a fire hazard, such as the kitchen, furnace room, workshop and garage.

While the simplest and least expensive smoke detector is the battery-powered unit that attaches to wall or ceiling with screws, if you are doing rewiring in an old house, you might consider installing current-powered units with battery backups and lights.

There are some myths about fires that should be dispelled. First Alert notes that fire is dark, not bright and "fluffy" as in the movies. You can get confused and lost in your own home.

Many fire fatalities are caused by smoke inhalation, not flame. People think the smell of burning will waken them if a fire occurs at night, but First Alert says you cannot smell smoke when you are asleep, and warns that fumes can send you into a deeper sleep.

You may have only two minutes to escape in a fire, so it's important to have an established route. Be sure every member of the family knows the procedure. Have fire drills, and use a stopwatch to see how long it takes to get everyone out. Since most home fires occur between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., you might want to practice escaping at night.

You need a backup escape route, in case the fire cuts off the initial route. Train every member of the family to feel doors before using them to get out; if the door is hot, use the other route. If the family includes young children or people who cannot get around on their own, assign another family member to help them. Don't try to gather everyone before escaping; you will be wasting the precious time you have to get out. Instead, arrange a meeting place outside.

If you have installed security devices, such as window bars and double-cylinder deadbolt locks, either make sure there are ways to get out without disturbing them, or provide keys nearby in case of an emergency.

Other parts of your fire-prevention program should include regular furnace maintenance, proper use of fireplaces, with doors or screens, proper ventilation for heaters and other small appliances, and a constant effort to reduce clutter, such as old newspapers, old clothes, old furniture or other items that a fire could feed on. Fire extinguishers in kitchen, garage and shop can prevent small fires from spreading (though you should never, ever pause to try to fight a major fire yourself). Keeping a rechargeable flashlight plugged in by your bed is also a good idea.

Many fire departments provide fire risk assessment visits or literature that can help you identify and eliminate fire hazards.

Having to face a home fire is a terrible thought, but you owe it to yourself and to your family to consider carefully how you will supply early detection and rapid escape. Because the alternative is simply unthinkable.


First Alert offers a free booklet about home fire safety, with tips and other information. For a copy, write Fire Safety Tips, 325 W. Huron, Suite 315, Chicago, Ill. 60610.

Mr. Johnson is a Baltimore construction manager. Ms. Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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