Have movies and super heroes lulled us into a false sense of security when it comes to house fires?
On screen, the good guys survive fires with ease and have time for dramatic rescues among the flames. In reality, between 2500 and 3000 Americans die in house fires every year — a tremendous drop from the roughly 8000 who used to die annually, but this lower statistical plateau still represents too many unnecessary deaths.
“We continue to have fire problems for a number of reasons; first of all, the way we build our homes and the things we put in our homes are different today,” said Lorraine Carli, vice president of Outreach and Advocacy for the National Fire Protection Association.
“Because we have been so successful in reducing the number of fires, people often do not think they are going to be impacted by a fire. The level of complacency in the community means they may not be as careful as they should be. [Unattended] cooking is the leading cause of fires. Heating, electrical, smoking… what people do in their homes causes fires.”
Fire deaths are also the result of what people don’t do. The majority of deaths occur during fires where there were no smoke alarms or no working smoke alarms.
While action movies and their Teflon super heroes may mislead us, the devastating California wildfires bring the real fire message home: fire travels very quickly — usually too quickly for anyone but highly-trained professional fire fighters to safely react to it.
“Modern [largely-synthetic] home furnishings, along with the fact that newer homes tend to be built with more open spaces and unprotected lightweight construction, all contribute to an increased rate at which home fires burn,” said Carli. “These factors make home escape planning and practice critical.”
Evacuation — in the form of a tried and tested Fire Escape Plan for Evacuation of My Home — is the smartest reaction to fire for non-professionals like us. Have you and each family member practiced, in daylight and darkness, two ways to exit — within two minutes — each room on each floor in your home?
Less than half of Americans (48 percent) know that an effective home fire escape plan includes working smoke alarms, two ways out of each room, and an outside meeting place a safe distance from the house.
What’s the big deal? You’ve walked out the front and back doors countless times.
“You’d think that, but it’s a very different scenario when [your home] is dark, it’s filled with smoke, one of your main exits may be filled with smoke or fire, there are things blocking your escape route… it becomes a very dangerous scenario if there is an actual fire.” said Carli. “Practice, so that if the smoke alarm sounds, everyone knows exactly what to do and how to use that [2 minutes] wisely.”
Well-placed and fully-functional smoke alarms provide precious life-saving minutes when smoke reaches an alarm. Scrimping on the number of alarms, skipping monthly alarm tests, or failing to replace batteries
is dangerous and irresponsible.
Open concept living spaces allow fires to spread more quickly. Alarm placement is crucial to keep exits open. Think about where people sleep and how they’ll exit your home to accurately calculate numbers and locations of alarms. Fully-functional fire alarms should be installed in every bedroom and outside each sleeping room as well as on every level including the basement. Read manufacturer’s instructions for placement details. Interconnecting the alarms increases effectiveness.
Local fire fighters may also be a resource.
Last Christmas Eve, a family of four died in a home fire. Their newly-renovated vacation home was known to have fully-functioning smoke alarms, but this was not enough to save the two children or the parents. The cause of the fire remains unknown although it started in the living room.
The two-story cathedral ceiling in the living room did not cause the fire, but it is believed to be the culprit in accumulating life-threatening toxic smoke. As is all too common with vaulted ceilings, the peaks are too high to easily position and maintain smoke alarms. In this case, smoke from the living room fire accumulated in the cathedral ceiling before triggering smoke alarms in time to warn to the family.
“Fire does not discriminate from one individual to the next,” said Operations Manager Scott Evenden, who led the investigation of the above-mentioned fire inspection for The Office of the Fire
Marshall and Emergency Management.
“Smoke will rise to the [cathedral] ceiling — it’s like an upside down pool. Smoke will fill that void from the ceiling down… there were multiple smoke alarms in that home. Tragically though, they were placed in positions that did not incorporate a smoke alarm into the highest point in the cathedral ceiling.Therefore, it is our opinion that may have may have had an effect on the ability for the smoke to be detected in the home and the inability of the occupants to escape safely from the home. We’ll never know 100%…”
What do you know about home fire sprinklers that you are positive is true?
Hollywood has mislead us again. We’ve seen movie heroes hold a flame to a sprinkler head to set off all the sprinklers on the floor or in the building. Big myth. Only the high temperature that results from a fire will activate a sprinkler, so fire near one will not set off all the sprinklers. Often one sprinkler head is enough to limit a fire or even put it out before the fire department arrives.
“The unfortunate reality is a number of jurisdictions have removed the provision for home fire sprinklers in their adoption process for their building code,” said Carli.
“The model code is the minimum level of safety and a jurisdiction that decides to take that [sprinkler] requirement out is in fact allowing substandard homes to be built in that community.”
NFPA’s Fire Sprinkler Initiative is an excellent resource if you’re building a new home or considering a significant renovation. Is your state a member of one of the 30 state coalitions intent on spreading knowledge and fire safety awareness regarding home fire sprinklers?
The majority of fire deaths happen at home. Because home is also where you feel safest, are you overlooking fire safety issues that may be staring you in the face?