Home Fire Prevention and Safety Tips

Working Together for Home Fire Safety

More than 3,400 Americans die each year in fires and approximately 17,500 are injured. An overwhelming number of fires occur in the home. There are time-tested ways to prevent and survive a fire. It’s not a question of luck. It’s a matter of planning ahead.

Every Home Should Have at Least One Working Smoke Alarm

Buy a smoke alarm at any hardware or discount store. It’s inexpensive protection for you and your family. Install a smoke alarm on every level of your home. A working smoke alarm can double your chances of survival. Test it monthly, keep it free of dust and replace the battery at least once a year. Smoke alarms themselves should be replaced after ten years of service, or as recommended by the manufacturer.

Prevent Electrical Fires

Never overload circuits or extension cords. Do not place cords and wires under rugs, over nails or in high traffic areas. Immediately shut off and unplug appliances that sputter, spark or emit an unusual smell. Have them professionally repaired or replaced.

Use Appliances Wisely

When using appliances follow the manufacturer’s safety precautions. Overheating, unusual smells, shorts and sparks are all warning signs that appliances need to be shut off, then replaced or repaired. Unplug appliances when not in use. Use safety caps to cover all unused outlets, especially if there are small children in the home.

Alternate Heaters

  • Portable heaters need their space. Keep anything combustible at least three feet away.
  • Keep fire in the fireplace. Use fire screens and have your chimney cleaned annually. The creosote buildup can ignite a chimney fire that could easily spread.
  • Kerosene heaters should be used only where approved by authorities. Never use gasoline or camp-stove fuel. Refuel outside and only after the heater has cooled.

Affordable Home Fire Safety Sprinklers

When home fire sprinklers are used with working smoke alarms, your chances of surviving a fire are greatly increased. Sprinklers are affordable – they can increase property value and lower insurance rates.

Plan Your Escape

Practice an escape plan from every room in the house. Caution everyone to stay low to the floor when escaping from fire and never to open doors that are hot. Select a location where everyone can meet after escaping the house. Get out then call for help.

Caring for Children

Children under five are naturally curious about fire. Many play with matches and lighters. Take the mystery out of fire play by teaching your children that fire is a tool, not a toy.

Caring for Older People

Every year over 1,000 senior citizens die in fires. Many of these fire deaths could have been prevented. Seniors are especially vulnerable because many live alone and can’t respond quickly.

Source: U.S. Fire Administration

Preventing Frozen Pipes

When water freezes, it expands. That’s why a can of soda explodes if it’s put into a freezer to chill quickly and forgotten. When water freezes in a pipe, it expands the same way. If it expands enough, the pipe bursts, water escapes and serious damage results.

Why Pipes Burst

Surprisingly, ice forming in a pipe does not typically cause a break where the ice blockage occurs. It’s not the radial expansion of ice against the wall of the pipe that causes the break. Rather, following a complete ice blockage in a pipe, continued freezing and expansion inside the pipe causes water pressure to increase downstream — between the ice blockage and a closed faucet at the end. It’s this increase in water pressure that leads to pipe failure. Usually the pipe bursts where little or no ice has formed. Upstream from the ice blockage the water can always retreat back towards its source, so there is no pressure build-up to cause a break. Water has to freeze for ice blockages to occur. Pipes that are adequately protected along their entire length by placement within the building’s insulation, insulation on the pipe itself, or heating, are safe.

Regional Differences

Generally, houses in northern climates are built with the water pipes located on the inside of the building insulation, which protects the pipes from subfreezing weather. However, extremely cold weather and holes in the building that allow a flow of cold air to come into contact with pipes can lead to freezing and bursting.

Water pipes in houses in southern climates often are more vulnerable to winter cold spells. The pipes are more likely to be located in unprotected areas outside of the building insulation, and homeowners tend to be less aware of freezing problems, which may occur only once or twice a season.

Pipes in attics, crawl spaces and outside walls are all vulnerable to freezing, especially if there are cracks or openings that allow cold, outside air to flow across the pipes. Research at the University of Illinois has shown that “wind chill,” the cooling effect of air and wind that causes the human body to lose heat, can play a major role in accelerating ice blockage, and thus bursting, in water pipes.

Holes in an outside wall where television, cable or telephone lines enter can provide access for cold air to reach pipes. The size of pipes and their composition (e.g., copper or PVC) have some bearing on how fast ice forms, but they are relatively minor factors in pipe bursting compared with the absence of heat, pipe insulation and exposure to a flow of subfreezing air.

When is it Cold Enough to Freeze?

When should homeowners be alert to the danger of freezing pipes? That depends, but in southern states and other areas where freezing weather is the exception rather than the rule (and where houses often do not provide adequate built-in protection), the “temperature alert threshold” is 20°F.

This threshold is based upon research conducted by the Building Research Council at the University of Illinois. Field tests of residential water systems subjected to winter temperatures demonstrated that, for un-insulated pipes installed in an unconditioned attic, the onset of freezing occurred when the outside temperature fell to 20°F or below.

This finding was supported by a survey of 71 plumbers practicing in southern states, in which the consensus was that burst-pipe problems began to appear when temperatures fell into the teens. However, freezing incidents can occur when the temperature remains above 20° F. Pipes exposed to cold air (especially flowing air, as on a windy day) because of cracks in an outside wall or lack of insulation are vulnerable to freezing at temperatures above the threshold. However, the 20°F “temperature alert threshold” should address the majority of potential burst-pipe incidents in southern states.

Mitigating the Problem

Water freezes when heat in the water is transferred to subfreezing air. The best way to keep water in pipes from freezing is to slow or stop this transfer of heat.

Ideally, it is best not to expose water pipes to subfreezing temperatures, by placing them only in heated spaces and keeping them out of attics, crawl spaces and vulnerable outside walls. In new construction, proper placement can be designed into the building.

In existing houses, a plumber may be able to re route at-risk pipes to protected areas, although this may not be a practical solution. If the latter is the case, vulnerable pipes that are accessible should be fitted with insulation sleeves or wrapping (which slows the heat transfer), the more insulation the better. It is important not to leave gaps that expose the pipe to cold air. Hardware stores and home centers carry the necessary materials, usually in foam rubber or fiberglass sleeves. Better yet, plumbing supply stores and insulation dealers carry pipe sleeves that feature extra-thick insulation, as much as 1” or 2” thick. The added protection is worth the extra cost.

Cracks and holes in outside walls and foundations near water pipes should be sealed with caulking to keep cold wind away from the pipes. Kitchen and bathroom cabinets can keep warm inside air from reaching pipes under sinks and in adjacent outside walls. It’s a good idea to keep cabinet doors open during cold spells to let the warm air circulate around the pipes. Electric heating tapes and cables are available to run along pipes to keep the water from freezing. These must be used with extreme caution; follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully to avoid the risk of fire, and check to make sure the product conforms to UL 2049. Tapes and cables with a built-in thermostat will turn heat on when needed. Tapes without a thermostat have to be plugged in each time heat is needed, and may be forgotten.

Letting the Water Run

Letting a faucet drip during extreme cold weather can prevent a pipe from bursting. It’s not that a small flow of water prevents freezing; this helps, but water can freeze even with a slow flow.

Rather, opening a faucet will provide relief from the excessive pressure that builds between the faucet and the ice blockage when freezing occurs. If there is no excessive water pressure, there is no burst pipe, even if the water inside the pipe freezes.

A dripping faucet wastes some water, so only pipes vulnerable to freezing (ones that run through an unheated or unprotected space) should be left with the water flowing. The drip can be very slight. Even the slowest drip at normal pressure will provide pressure relief when needed. Where both hot and cold lines serve a spigot, make sure each one contributes to the drip, since both are subjected to freezing. If the dripping stops, leave the faucet(s) open, since a pipe may have frozen and will still need pressure relief.

If You Suspect a Frozen Pipe

If you open a faucet and no water comes out, don’t take any chances. Call a plumber. If a water pipe bursts, turn off the water at the main shut-off valve (usually at the water meter or where the main line enters the house); leave the faucet(s) open until repairs are completed. Don’t try to thaw a frozen pipe with an open flame; as this will damage the pipe and may even start a building fire. You might be able to thaw a pipe with a hand-held hair dryer. Slowly apply heat, starting close to the faucet end of the pipe, with the faucet open. Work toward the coldest section. Don’t use electrical appliances while standing in water; you could get electrocuted.

Going on a Trip

When away from the house for an extended period during the winter, be careful how much you lower the heat. A lower temperature may save on the heating bill, but there could be a disaster if a cold spell strikes and pipes that normally would be safe, freeze and burst.

A solution is to drain the water system. This is the best safeguard. With no water in the pipes, there is no freezing. This remedy should be considered even when the homeowner is not leaving but is concerned about a serious overnight freeze.

To drain the system, shut off the main valve and turn on every water fixture (both hot and cold lines) until water stops running. It’s not necessary to leave the fixtures open, since the system is filled mostly with air at that point and not subject to freezing. When returning to the house, turn on the main valve and let each fixture run until the pipes are full again.

Source: Institute for Business and Home Safety. IBHS is a national nonprofit initiative of the insurance industry to reduce deaths, injuries, property damage, economic losses and human suffering caused by natural disasters.

Source: The Weather Channel

Maine fire officials press importance of working smoke detectors as Maine plunges into deep freeze


Two sisters, ages 6 and 11, in March. A 30-year-old husband and father and his three children — ages 4, 8 and 9 — in November. And last month, two brothers described as best friends.

These are the eight people in Maine who died in 2012 in fires that occurred in homes that lacked working smoke detectors, according to the results of investigations by the State Fire Marshal’s Office.

The fires that claimed the lives of Natalie Hogan, 11, and Kelsey Hogan, 6, of Lisbon, Ben Johnson III and children Ben IV, Ryan and Leslie of Orrington, and Cris Davis, 49, of Milford and his brother Randy Davis, 47, of Orono were not isolated incidents.

And with the current cold snap and high fuel costs, struggling homeowners and renters will be turning to alternative heating sources, elevating the risk of fires. Most fire deaths in Maine occur in December, January and March.

Statistics provided by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) show that in 2011, home structure fires caused 84 percent of that year’s 3,005 civilian, or non-firefighter, fire deaths.

Fire deaths disproportionately affect older adults, who typically account for 32 to 40 percent of the total, according to the fire marshal’s office.

Cooking, especially unattended cooking and frying, was the No. 1 cause of house fires from 2006 to 2010, according to the NFPA. Smoking was the leading cause of house fire deaths over the same period.

From 2005 to 2009, nearly two thirds of home fire deaths resulted from fires in homes with no working smoke detectors. In 2010, the most recent year for which national data is available, the total was 62 percent, according to Richard Taylor, senior research and planning analyst for the State Fire Marshal’s Office, on Thursday.

The NFPA further noted that in 80 percent of the cases nationally in which smoke alarms failed to operate, the cause usually pointed to batteries that were missing, disconnected or dead.

Smoke alarms were absent in the Lisbon and Orono fires. State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas said that while a smoke detector was found in the rubble of the Orrington fire, the safety device lacked a battery.

Fire officials say the deaths could have been prevented had there been functioning smoke detectors in the homes.

“It’s crazy to think that for $20 [a typical cost for a smoke alarm], this might have been prevented,” Orrington Fire Chief Michael Spencer said this week.

On Wednesday, Spencer said the November fire in Orrington that left 31-year-old Christine Johnson the sole survivor — the deadliest in Maine since December 1992 — hit the community and his department hard.

Though it was not the first fatal fire in Orrington during Spencer’s tenure as fire chief, it was the first that involved children and the first that involved multiple victims, he said.

Among Spencer’s fears was that firefighters, who were mostly volunteers, would risk their lives knowing that a father and his children were inside the burning house. Afterward, the banter that firefighters sometimes engage in as a way of coping with tragedies was totally absent, he said.

“It was complete silence. You could have heard a pin drop,” said Spencer, who personally removed the bodies of the three children from the house to spare his firefighters the task.

Thomas said this week that because fire officials lack the statutory authority to enter private homes to make sure they are equipped with smoke detectors, his office is reaching out to those who do — including social workers, police and medical professionals — to make sure that the needed life-saving devices are present, despite the fact that Maine law does not require them in private homes.

He’s also applying for a roughly $225,000 grant from the U.S. Fire Administration to fuel a fire safety public education blitz.

“I’m tired of having to put people in body bags,” Fire Marshal Thomas said candidly during a telephone interview last month.

Veazie fire Capt. Peter Metcalf, who in the past has taught fire safety in Bangor and Orono and still does a lot of behind-the-scenes work, agrees.

“Working smoke alarms are really your first defense in knowing there’s a fire in your house. Whether it’s 3 o’clock in the morning or 2 o’clock in the afternoon, without that working smoke alarm, you may not know until it’s too late that there’s a fire in your home.”

According to estimates by the National Fire Protection Association and the U.S. Fire Administration, the use of smoke alarms in U.S. homes rose from less than 10 percent in 1975 to at least 95 percent in 2000, while the number of home fire deaths was cut nearly in half, the U.S. National Institute on Standards and Technology notes.

“Thus the home smoke alarm is credited as the greatest success story in fire safety in the last part of the 20th century, because it alone represented a highly effective fire safety technology with leverage on most of the fire death problem that went from only token usage to nearly universal usage in a remarkably short time,” the institute said.

While early alert to a fire can save lives when minutes matter, Metcalf said that having — and practicing — a family escape plan and designating a meeting place also are critical keys to surviving a house fire. Also important are to have chimneys and heating systems checked before each year’s home heating season gets under way, he said.

“Smoke disorients you. Where you thought things were is all changed around because you’re disoriented by the smoke. When families practice a home escape plan, it almost becomes routine. It becomes second nature.”

Taylor said that NFPA statistics show that nuisance alarms — namely those set off by cooking or steam — are the leading reasons why people remove the batteries from or disconnect smoke alarms. As a result, he said, one in every five homes in the United States lacks a functioning smoke alarm.

Metcalf agreed that this is a problem.

“We teach so much on smoke alarms and the need to change the batteries on a regular basis — change your clock, change your battery,” he said. “The downside is many times, people have nuisance alarms.

“So what’s the normal reaction? They turn the alarm off because they don’t want to bother anybody. They take the battery out, they forget [to replace it] and they go back to their routine, finishing supper or finishing up the kids’ baths or showers. You forget about the smoke alarm and if it’s battery-operated, it’s not going to work. And then you forget and then you go to bed and then you’re vulnerable. That’s when the risk happens.”

Metcalf and Spencer are among the Maine fire officials who say that neither cost nor lack of education should be deterrents to equipping homes with smoke alarms.

“There now are models that cost from $5 to $30 or $40, depending what kind you buy,” Spencer said. Some are equipped with a reset button that briefly disarms the alarm — without disconnecting the battery or electrical power — should they be inadvertently set off by cooking or bathing, he said.

“If a homeowner cannot afford a smoke alarm for whatever reason, they can always check with their local fire department to see what types of programs they offer. Many fire departments will keep smoke alarms on hand to help residents that are in need,” Metcalf added.

The tragic fire in Orrington prompted the Pine Tree Burn Foundation last month to donate $500 worth of smoke detectors to the Orrington Fire Department.

“One of the foundation’s missions is to provide assistance with fire and life safety material,” said President Janet Metcalf, who is Pete Metcalf’s wife and a teacher, when the donation was made. “We felt this was an opportunity for our organization to assist this community with purchasing smoke alarms.”

The fire department now has a supply of detectors to give out to residents who cannot afford or do not otherwise have them.

Spencer said that since the fatal fire in Orrington, his department has been approached by residents who are taking the lesson learned to heart. Families have told him that they are checking their smoke detectors to make sure they are in working order and are practicing their escape plans.

He said the fire department this month is launching a monthly discussion on fire safety for interested residents.

Spencer said many fire departments, including Orrington’s, offer help with checking or installing detectors and reviewing escape plans. Homeowners and renters interested in such services should contact their local fire departments or town offices.

While fire officials do what they can to provide fire prevention and safety education, the final responsibility is in the hands of homeowners, Metcalf said.

“Tragedies such as Orrington and Orono will stick in people’s minds, especially those close to the families,” he said. But in some cases, only for so long.

“Over the next several days, several months, people will be diligent about remembering to check their smoke alarms, but as the months go on, we tend to get back into our normal routine and the hustle and bustle of everyday life. We forget about some of the small things that keep ourselves safe, like checking our smoke alarms.”

Source: Bangor Daily News