Home Fire-Safety Planning

May 1, 2005

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(This article appeared in the May/June 2003 issue of The American Postal Worker magazine.)

Joyce B. Robinson, Research & Education Department Director

Fire drills are a fairly commonplace event at schools and at many workplaces.Not enough families think to practice fire safety around the house, however, and it may be time to do so. Remember: You may not be able to prevent a fire, but you can develop an escape plan to minimize its impact.

The most important element to a family escape plan is familiarity, which can be bred only by practice. You should have battery-operated smoke alarms near each bedroom and on each floor of your home. You're supposed to replace those batteries every year, and in many households the event is linked to a holiday (e.g., Labor Day, Thanksgiving, or even Super Bowl Sunday). Fire-safety experts recommend that you test smoke alarms once a month and dust them periodically.

Fire Prevention Practices

Fire prevention is key to fire safety. You should have an easily accessible fire extinguisher on each floor of your home, follow its guidelines on testing and replacement, and maybe even contact your local fire department for advice and or training in its use.

Controlled "fire events" involving fireplaces or candles require vigilance. Open flames should not be left unattended for very long, and flashlights should be handy so that you won't be tempted to rely on any of these during a power outage.

Frequently used during power failures, portable and space heaters should be kept at least three feet away from anything that can burn, and farther still from children and pets. You may still have natural gas during an electrical outage; careful cooks never leave their gas burners unattended and always keep the cooktop area clear of combustibles.

Finally, provide smokers with deep, wide ashtrays, and soak the butts in water before discarding them.

Developing an Escape Route

Hold a meeting with all family members, including small children, to develop a fire-escape plan. Practice your method of escape at least twice a year with everyone in attendance. Try to outline two escape routes from every room in the home and choose an outside gathering place to meet after the escape is made.

As a family, inspect all the usual exits and other possible escape routes; assure that the routes to doors and windows are clear and that they have quick-release mechanisms for ease of opening.

Purchase escape ladders, and store them near the windows. (If you live in an apartment building, be sure to plan a route to the nearest stairwell. If the elevators are working, the fire-rescue personnel will need them.)

Testing the Plan

Practice your home fire-escape plan twice a year, making the fire drill as realistic as possible. Determine if everyone can readily awaken to the sound of the smoke alarm. If you're uncertain the alarm will stir them, assign someone to alert them in case of a real emergency.

To test your escape plan, drill first in daylight, then again at night - alert children about night-drill plans at their bedtime.

If your home has more than one level, practice the positioning and use of escape ladders.

During the drill, have everyone practice crawling on hands and knees, keeping heads low to breathe the "good air" near the floor. Don't go too low: Crawling on your belly could cause you to absorb poisons produced by smoke settled to the floor.

When You Can't Get Out

Since smoke or fire may prevent exiting your home or apartment building, it's a good idea to practice "sealing yourself in for safety."

  • Close all doors between yourself and the fire;
  • Open your windows, top and bottom, as widely as possible to allow fresh air to get inside; and
  • Use towels or clothing to seal cracks around the door, and cover air vents to keep smoke from coming in.

For more information, visit www.firepreventionweek.org (the National Fire Protection Association's Web site), or contact your local fire department.

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