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Fire Prevention History

The history of Fire Prevention Week has its roots in the Great Chicago fire, which occurred on October 9, 1871. This tragic conflagration killed more than 250 people, left 100,000 homeless, destroyed more than 17,400 structures and burned more than 2,000 acres in 27 hours. While the origin on the fire has never been determined, there has been much speculation over how it began. One popular legend was that Mrs. Catherine O’Leary was milking her cow when the animal kicked over a lamp, setting the O’Leary’s barn on fire and starting the spectacular blaze. This was proven untrue a few years ago by Chicago historian Robert Cromie. 

On the Great Chicago Fire’s 40th anniversary, the former Fire Marshals Association of North American (now the International Fire Marshals Association, or IFMA) sponsored the first National Fire Prevention Day, advocating an annual observation as a way to keep the public informed about the importance of fire prevention. In 1920, President Woodrow Wilson issued the first National Fire Prevention Day proclamation, and since 1922, National Fire Prevention Week has been observed on the Sunday-through-Saturday period in which October 9 falls. In addition, the President of the United States has signed a proclamation pronouncing a national observance during that week every year since 1925.

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Candles and Fire

During 2002, there were an estimated 18,000 home fires started by candles. These fires resulted in an estimated 130 civilian deaths; 1,250 civilian injuries; $333 million estimated direct property loss; and included one- and two-family dwellings, apartments and manufactured housing.

Where did these fires start?

  • 40% of the home candle fires started in the bedroom, resulting in 30% of the associated civilian deaths.

How did these fires start?

  • 50% of home candle fires occurred when some form of combustible material was left near, or came too close to, the candle.
  • 18% occurred after candles were left unattended, abandoned or inadequately controlled.
  • 5% were started by people (usually children) playing with the candle.

Falling asleep was a factor in 12% of home candle fires and 25% of the home candle fire deaths.

Remember that a candle is an open flame and can easily ignite any combustible nearby.

Candle Safety Tips

  • Extinguish all candles when leaving the room or going to sleep.
  • Keep candles away from items that can catch fire, like clothing, books and curtains.
  • Use candleholders that are sturdy; will not tip over easily, are made from a material that cannot burn and are large enough to collect dripping wax.
  • Keep candles and all open flames away from flammable liquids.
  • Keep candle wicks trimmed to one-quarter inch and extinguish taper and pillar candles when they get to within 2 inches of the holder. Votives and containers should be extinguished before the last half-inch of wax starts to melt.
  • During power outages, avoid carrying a lit candle. Use flashlights.  

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Cooking Safety

Cooking fires are the #1 cause of home fires and home fire injuries. Most cooking equipment fires start with the ignition of common household items (e.g., food or grease, cabinets, wall coverings, paper or plastic bags, curtains, etc.).

In 2001, there were 117,100 reported home structure fires associated with cooking equipment. These fires resulted in:

  • 370 deaths;
  • 4,290 injuries;
  • $453 million in direct property damage.  

How did these fires start?

  • Unattended cooking is the leading cause of home cooking fires.
  • 3 in every 10 reported home fires start in the kitchen – more than any other place in the home.
  • 2 out of 3 reported home cooking fires start with the range or stove.  

Electric vs. Gas?

  • Electric ranges or stoves have a higher risk of fires, injuries, and property damage, relative to usage, than gas ranges or stoves.
  • But gas ranges or stoves have a higher risk of fire deaths.  

Safety Tips

  • Always use cooking equipment tested and approved by a recognized testing facility.
  • Never leave cooking food on the stovetop unattended, and keep a close eye on food cooking inside the oven.
  • Keep cooking areas clean and clear of combustibles (e.g.; potholders, towels, rags, drapes and food packaging).
  • Keep children away from cooking areas by enforcing a “kid-free-zone” of 3 feet around the stove.
  • Keep pets from underfoot so you do not trip while cooking.
  • Keep pets off cooking surfaces and nearby countertops to prevent them from knocking things onto the burner(s).
  • Wear short, close fitting or tightly rolled sleeves when cooking.
  • Loose clothing can dangle onto stove burners and catch fire.
  • Never use a wet oven mitt, as it presents a scald danger if the moisture in the mitt is heated.
  • Always keep a potholder, oven mitt and lid handy.

If a small fire starts in a pan on the stove:

  • Put on an oven mitt.
  • Smother the flames by carefully sliding the lid over the pan.
  • Turn off the burner.
  • Do not remove the lid until it is completely cool.
  • Never pour water on a grease fire.
  • Never discharge a fire extinguisher onto a pan fire, as it can spray or shoot burning grease around the kitchen, actually spreading the fire.

If there is an oven fire:

  • Turn off the heat.
  • Keep the door closed to prevent flames from burning you and your clothing.
     

If there is a microwave fire:

  • Keep the door closed.
  • Unplug the microwave.
  • Call the fire department.
  • Make sure to have the oven serviced before you use it again.
  • Food cooked in a microwave can be dangerously hot.
  • Remove the lids or other coverings from microwaved food carefully to prevent steam burns.

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Fire Drills in the Home (aka: Exit Drills in the Home – E.D.I.T.H.)  

You and your family can survive a fire in your home

 – IF –

you plan and practice your escape.

Fire can spread rapidly through your home, leaving you as little as 2 minutes to escape safely once the smoke alarm sounds. Your ability to get out depends on advance warning from smoke alarms, and advance planning – a home fire escape plan that everyone in your family is familiar with and has PRACTICED.

One-third of American households who made an estimate thought they would have at least 6 minutes before a fire in their home would become life threatening. The time available is often less. And only 8% said their first thought on hearing a smoke alarm would be to get out!

Building your home escape plan - pull together everyone in your household and make the plan.

  • Walk through your home and inspect all possible exits and escape routes (doors & windows).
  • Make sure all exits and escape routes can be opened easily.
  • Make sure all exits and escape routes are free of clutter.
  • Households with children should consider drawing a floor plan of your home. Using posters and markers is a great way to get children involved in fire safety in a non-threatening way.
  • Note two ways out of each room, including windows and doors.
  • Mark the location of each smoke alarm.
  • Choose an outside meeting place. Neighbor’s house, a light post, mailbox, or stop sign.
  • The meeting place should be a safe distance from in front of your home.
  • Everyone will meet at this location after they’ve escaped.
  • Make sure to mark the location of the meeting place on your escape plan.
  • If there are infants, older adults or family members with mobility limitations make sure that someone is assigned to assist them in the fire drill and in the event of an emergency.
  • Assign a backup person too, in case the designee is not home during the emergency.  

Make sure you have at least one smoke alarm on every level of your home.

Everyone in the household must understand the escape plan.

Escape Plan

Practicing your escape plan.

  • It will not work unless you practice it.
  • Practice your home fire escape plan twice a year.
  • Make the drill as realistic as possible.
  • Allow children to master fire escape planning and practice before holding a fire drill at night when they are sleeping.
  • The objective is to practice, not to frighten, so telling children there will be a drill before they go to bed can be as effective as a surprise drill.
  • It is important to determine during the drill whether children and others can readily waken to the sound of the smoke alarm.
  • If they fail to awaken, make sure that someone is assigned to wake them up as part of the drill and in a real emergency situation.
  • If your home has two floors, every family member (including children) must be able to escape from the second floor rooms.
  • Escape ladders can be placed in or near windows to provide an additional escape route.
  • Review the manufacturer’s instructions carefully so you will be able to use a safety ladder in an emergency.
  • Practice setting up the ladder from a FIRST FLOOR window to make sure you can do it correctly and quickly.
  • Children should only practice with a grown-up and only from a FIRST STORY window.
  • Store the ladder near the 2nd story window where it will be used, in an easily accessible location. You do not want to have to search for it during a fire.
  • Always choose the escape route that is safest. The one with the least amount of smoke and heat – but be prepared to escape through toxic smoke if necessary.
  • When you do your fire drill, everyone in the family should practice crawling low on their hands and knees, one to two feet above the ground.
  • By keeping your head low, you will be able to breath the “good” air closer to the floor.
  • It is important to practice crawling on your hands and knees, not your bellies, as some poisons produced by smoke are heavier than air and settle to the floor.
  • Closing doors on your way out slows the spread of fire, giving you more time to safely escape.

In some cases, smoke or fire may prevent you from exiting your home or apartment building.

  • To prepare for an emergency like this, practice “sealing yourself in for safety” as part of your home fire escape plan.
  • Close all doors between you and the fire.
  • Use duct tape or towels to seal the door cracks and cover air vents to keep smoke from coming in.
  • If possible, open your windows at the top and bottom so fresh air can get in.
  • Practice going to your window and waving a lit flashlight or white towel/shirt/sheet to get someone’s attention. or if there is a phone in the room, call 9-1-1.

One of the most important things you can do to be prepared for an emergency in your home is to make sure your Street Number is Clearly Visible from the road. If not, paint it on the curb or install house numbers to ensure that responding emergency personnel can find your home. This will help when the minutes count.

If windows or doors in your home have Security Bars, make sure that the bars have quick-release mechanisms inside so that they can be opened immediately in an emergency. Quick-release mechanisms won’t compromise your security – but they will increase your chances of safely escaping a home fire.

Tell Guests or Visitors to your home about your family’s fire escape plan. When staying overnight at other people’s homes, ask about their escape plan. If they do not have a plan in place, offer to help them make one. This is especially important when children are permitted to attend “sleepovers” at friends’ homes.

Be fully prepared for a real fire: when a smoke alarm sounds, get out immediately.  

Once you’re out, STAY OUT !

Under no circumstances should you ever go back into a burning building.

If someone is missing, inform the fire department dispatcher when you call.

Firefighters have the skills and equipment to perform rescues.

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Fire Escape Planning for Seniors  

Knowing what to do in case of a fire is particularly important for older adults.

  • At age 65, people are twice as likely to be killed or injured by fires compared to the population at large.
  • This population is growing every year and in the United States, adults age 65 and older make up about 12% of the population,
  • It’s essential to take the necessary steps to stay safe.  

Keep it low.

  • If you do not live in an upstairs apartment building, consider sleeping in a room on the ground floor in order to make emergency escape easier.
  • Make sure that smoke alarms are installed near any sleeping area, and have a telephone installed where you sleep in case of an emergency.  

Sound the alarm.

  • The majority of fatal fires occur when people are sleeping, and because smoke can put you into a deeper sleep rather than wake you, it is important to have a mechanical early warning of a fire to ensure that you wake up.
  • If anyone in your household is deaf or if your own hearing is diminished, consider installing a smoke alarm that uses a flashing light, vibration and/or higher decibel sound to alert you to a fire emergency.
  • Contact NFPA’s (National Fire Protection Association) Center for High-Risk Outreach for a list of product manufacturers.  

Do the drill.

  • Conduct your own, or participate in, regular fire drills to make sure you know what to do in the event of a home fire.
  • If you or someone you live with cannot escape alone, designate a member of the household to assist, and decide on backups in case the designee isn’t home.
  • Fire drills are also a good opportunity to make sure that everyone is able to hear and respond to smoke alarms.  

Open up.

  • Make sure you are able to open all doors and windows in your home, although sSome apartments have windows designed not to open.
  • Locks and pins should open easily from inside.
  • If you have security bars on doors or windows, they should have quick-release mechanisms inside so that they can be opened easily. These mechanisms will not compromise your safety, but they will enable you to open the window from inside in the event of a fire.
  • Check to be sure that windows have not been sealed shut with paint or nailed shut. If they have, arrange for someone to break the seals all around your home or remove the nails.

Stay connected.

Keep a telephone nearby, along with emergency phone numbers so that you can communicate with emergency personnel if you are trapped in your room by fire or smoke.

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Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon Monoxide (CO) is a very dangerous gas that people cannot see, taste, or smell, and for these reasons is known as the “Silent Killer.” It is made from incomplete burning of materials such as gasoline, charcoal and wood. It comes from kerosene or propane, space heaters, furnaces, gas ovens or range tops, gas water heaters, gas clothes dryers, gasoline-powered engines, charcoal grills, and fireplace/chimneys.  Too much CO in your blood can kill you.  Carbon Monoxide is sometimes called “the Great Imitator.”   When carbon monoxide gas gets into your system it creates a poison causing your body to react with minor flu-like symptoms, making it hard to tell if you actually have the flu or CO poisoning. For this reason it is very important to have a CO detector installed in your home.

Facts & Figures:

  • According to the National Safety Council, 200-300 unintentional-injury deaths a year are due to carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • The dangers of CO exposure depend on a number of variables, including the victim’s health and activity level. Infants, pregnant women, and people with physical conditions that limit their body’s ability to use oxygen (i.e. emphysema, asthma, heart disease) can be more severely affected by lower concentrations of CO than healthy adults would be.
  • A person can be poisoned by a small amount of CO over a longer period of time or by a large amount of CO over a shorter amount of time.

Symptoms of CO Poisoning:

CO enters the body through breathing. CO poisoning can be confused with flu symptoms, food poisoning and other illnesses. Some symptoms include shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, light headedness or headaches. High levels of CO can be fatal, causing death within minutes.

The concentration of CO, measured in parts per million (ppm) is a determining factor in the symptoms for an average, healthy adult.

CO concentration ppm Symptoms
50 No adverse affects with 8 hours of exposure.
200 Mild headache after 2-3 hours of exposure.
400 Headache and nausea after 1-2 hours of exposure.
800 Headache, nausea, and dizziness after 45 minutes; collapse and unconsciousness after 1 hour of exposure.
1,000 Loss of consciousness after 1 hour of exposure.
1,600 Headache, nausea, and dizziness after 20 minutes of exposure.
3,200 Headache, nausea, and dizziness after 5-10 minutes; collapse and unconsciousness after 30 minutes of exposure.
6,400 Headache and dizziness after 1-2 minutes; unconsciousness and danger of death after 10-15 minutes of exposure.
12,800 Immediate physiological effects, unconsciousness and danger of death after 1-3 minutes of exposure.

Safety Tips in the Home:

  • Install CO alarms (listed by an independent testing laboratory) inside your home to provide early warning of accumulating CO. Alarms should be installed in a central location outside each separate sleeping area. If bedrooms are spaced apart, each area will need a CO alarm.
  • Test CO alarms at least once a month and replace CO alarms according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • CO alarms are not substitutes for smoke alarms. Know the difference between the sound of smoke alarms and CO alarms.
  • Have fuel-burning heating equipment (fireplaces, furnaces, water heaters, wood and coal stoves, space or portable heaters) and chimneys inspected by a professional every year before cold weather sets in.  

Safety Tips Outside the Home:

  • If you need to warm a vehicle, remove it from the garage immediately after starting it. Do not run a vehicle, generator, or other fueled engine or motor indoors, even if garage doors are open. Make sure the exhaust pipe of a running vehicle is not covered.
  • Only use barbecue grills – which can produce CO – outside. Never use them in the home, garage or near building openings.
  • When camping, remember to use battery powered lights in tents, trailers and motor homes.  

If Your CO Alarm Sounds:

  • Immediately move to a fresh air location and call for help. Remain at the fresh air location until emergency personnel say it is okay.
  • If the audible trouble signal sounds, check for low batteries or other trouble indicators.

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Emergency Lights and Sirens – What To Do When They Approach

When you hear sirens approach as you are driving, it is important to remember to yield the right of way to all emergency vehicles. Drivers of emergency vehicles are thoroughly trained and tested, and are taught to first drive with regard for the safety of others. Their intent is never to force other drivers off the road. Generally, emergency drivers will move to the left, since obviously other drivers are supposed to move right. Sometimes, due to traffic conditions, they may have to travel in opposing lanes. This is why it is so important for drivers to respect response vehicles by moving out of the way and stopping. That will provide the space needed and ideally give an escape route if something goes wrong. The following is an outline of what you should and should not do when you see emergency lights and hear sirens approaching.

Things You SHOULD Do:

  • Pull your vehicle to the right and stop. This is the general rule in all cases.
  • When you are in the right lane, pull onto the right shoulder if there is room and stop, or at least slow down if you are on an open high-speed road.
  • When you are in the left lane and traffic in the right lane is moving onto the shoulder, move right into their lane.
  • If you cannot go right because of an obstacle, such as a car in the right lane when you are in the left lane, the next best thing is to stop. The driver of an emergency vehicle can then anticipate where to move his vehicle.
  • If you are continuing to travel, someone else might not see the response vehicle or respond inappropriately. If you are moving, you are at risk of collision.
  • When you are at an intersection with a stop sign or red light and a response vehicle is coming up behind you, stay where you are if you cannot pull to the right.
  • If you are on a one-way street, pulling to the right is still best, but sometimes, due to traffic, you may pull to the left curb and yield the middle lane(s). This is one appropriate exception to the “pull right” rule.

Things You SHOULD NOT Do:

  • Stop in the middle of the lane when there is room to pull right.
  • Pull to the left in the center yellow lane or left turn lane.
  • Drive through a red light or stop sign when an emergency vehicle approaches from behind.
  • Make a left turn quickly to a driveway or street.
  • Race ahead to get through a green light or turn before the response vehicle gets there.
  • Disregard and continue to travel despite the response vehicle.

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Lightning Safety

Although lightning is one of the most magnificent natural phenomena, it kills or injures hundreds of people every year mainly because the victims are not aware of the danger they face. Most deaths from lightning can be prevented.  

What is lightning?

  • Lightning is a spark that can reach over 5 miles in length, attain a temperature of approximately 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and contain over 100 million electrical volts.
  • Lightning travels 3 ways: cloud-to-cloud, ground-to-cloud, cloud-to-ground.
  • For example, cloud-to-ground lightning is usually caused when a negative charge at the base of a cloud is attracted to the positive charge at the earth’s surface; a powerful surge of electricity descends to the ground carrying a current made up of millions of electrons. This is answered by a return stroke, which appears to us as the bright flash of cloud-to-ground lightning.  

Safety Tips:

  • The single most important thing to remember is to seek shelter indoors during a lightning storm.
  • If you are caught outside in a thunderstorm, get inside a building.
  • Be sure and bring your pets inside.
  • If you have to stay outside, keep away from metal objects.
  • Stay below ground level, away from hilltops, open beaches or fields
  • It is VERY IMPORTANT to stay away from open water and tall trees. Both are great lightning conductors.
  • Install a lightning-rod system before storm season. The device can protect your home by leading the current into the ground.
  • Unplug electronic equipment, TVs and computers before the storm. Sometimes surge protectors fail, so the cautious unplug even them.
  • During the storm, don’t touch electrical equipment, appliances or cords.
  • Stay away from sinks, tubs and faucets. Electricity is attracted anywhere there’s water or metal.
  • Be careful around downed power lines. If you’re near one, keep your feet together and on the ground at all times. Minimize the potential for shock by shuffling away.
  • Don’t drive over a downed line. If your car’s in contact with it, stay inside and honk the horn for help. If you must leave, jump out with both feet together.
  • Avoid being the electric link between the car and ground by not touching them at the same time. Again, shuffle away.

For additional information, check out these Web sites:

The Electrical Safety Foundation International

National Weather Service  

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Last updated: 6/9/2009 10:51:25 AM