Home Fires: Two Steps to Save Your Life


from Bristel Minsker with Red Cross Communications

What would you do if you got a call right now from the fire department, notifying you that your home was on fire and most of your belongings destroyed? Or worse, imagine waking up in the middle of the night to the smell of smoke and the deafening blare of a smoke alarm, unable to see, knowing you and your family had only minutes to escape.

We see stories about home fires on the morning news, but we all think it won’t happen to us. In actuality, chances are high that it will happen to you or someone you know.

The American Red Cross responds to more than 66,000 disasters every year, and most of them are home fires. On average, seven times a day someone in this country dies in a fire and another 36 people suffer injuries.

Fixed and portable space heaters, including wood stoves, are involved in 74 percent of fire-related deaths.

With those staggering statistics in mind, one question remains: is your family prepared for the unthinkable? As the temperatures drop this winter, fire hazards increase. Now is the perfect time to take fire preparedness seriously for your family and your community.

To start, let’s talk about how to prevent a home fire from occurring. Cold is setting in and many people are turning the heat back on in their homes or resorting to alternate—sometimes unsafe—heating methods. Furnaces, chimneys, fireplaces, wood and coal stoves should be inspected and cleaned before another winter of use.

If you are considering using a space heater or alternate heating source—as nearly half of the households in this country do—there are also some important safety considerations to keep in mind.

Fixed and portable space heaters, including wood stoves, are involved in 74 percent of fire-related deaths. The Red Cross recommends finding a model that shuts off automatically if the heater falls over. Space heaters should always be placed on a level, hard and nonflammable surface in the home, at least three feet away from anything flammable like paper, clothing, bedding, curtains or rugs. Portable heaters and fireplaces should never be left unattended.

Children can be the most vulnerable to the dangers of home fires, so never leave them alone near a heating source like a fireplace or space heater. Many fires in the home are started by children playing with dangerous items like matches and lighters; these items should always be kept out of your kids’ reach. Kids should also be kept away from dangerous kitchen appliances like the stove.

Cooking is the leading cause of home fires across the country, and the risk of a kitchen fire becomes even more pronounced during the holidays, when people cook big meals surrounded by lots of distractions.

In addition to basic cooking safety tips—like cleaning the stove regularly and turning pot handles to the back to avoid spills—every home cook should know what to do if something in the kitchen unexpectedly ignites.

If a pan catches fire, don’t move it. Slide a pan lid or cookie sheet on top of the pan to put out the fire. Turn off the heat. Keep the lid on the pan until it cools. Never try to stop a grease or oil fire with water; it will fuel the fire.

If something catches fire in the oven, keep the door closed. Call 9-1-1 so firefighters can make sure the fire didn’t spread to the walls. If a fire occurs in the microwave, keep the door closed and unplug the microwave if you can. Don’t use it again until a repairman checks it.

If a kitchen fire breaks out, it’s likely that someone will be nearby to alert the rest of the house and make sure everyone gets out safely and calls 9-1-1. But what if a fire breaks out when you are not nearby, or when you are asleep?

The best way to prepare for an unseen and devastating home fire is to take two simple steps right now.

The best way to prepare for an unseen and devastating home fire is to take two simple steps right now. These are the two things that, above all else, will protect you and your loved ones if the unimaginable happens.

Step one: make a plan
You may only have two minutes to escape when a fire occurs, but most people mistakenly believe they have more than twice as long to get out. Create an escape plan that includes at least two ways to escape from every room in your home, and select a meeting spot at a safe distance from your home where family members can meet after a fire. Discuss your plan with everyone in the household, including kids, and practice it twice a year so that everyone can escape in less than two minutes.

Once everyone gets out, they should stay out. Never go back inside a burning building.

Step two: get working smoke alarms
Working smoke alarms cut the risk of dying in a fire in half. In October 2014, the American Red Cross and its local partners launched a nationwide effort to reduce deaths and injuries caused by home fires by 25%.

Working with fire departments and community groups across the country, the organization is installing smoke alarms in homes in neighborhoods at high risk for fires and teaching residents about fire prevention and preparedness.

Any family in need can contact the Red Cross to receive a smoke alarm. You can also call your local fire department for information about how to get and install smoke alarms.

Once the alarms are installed in their proper locations—one inside and outside every bedroom and at least one on every level of the home—make sure to test them monthly, install new batteries if it begins to chirp, and teach children what the alarm sounds like and what to do if the alarm sounds.

Following those two simple steps could be the difference between life and death in a home fire. In fact, we know that the American Red Cross Home Fire Campaign is already responsible for saving more than 110 lives and counting.

To learn more about how to protect yourself and your loved ones from home fires, including the
Red Cross home fire safety checklist, fire escape plan worksheets and more, visit redcross.org/homefires.

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