Fire safety 411

“Prevent home fires. Protect what matters.”

If this slogan from U.S. Fire Administration (USFA)’s fire safety material for caregivers of babies and children grabs your attention, that’s a good thing. It’s a stark reality but children under the age of 5 years are twice as likely as the rest of us to die in a fire. 

While it’s true that some of the factors that increase young children’s risk of death can’t be changed—small bodies succumb to the effects of smoke sooner, little ones don’t understand the danger immediately and therefore delay in taking action—that doesn’t mean our hands are tied when it comes to keeping our children safe. 

The fire safety awareness material from the USFA boils caregiver action down to three, manageable points:

  • Protect. Keep children 3 feet away from anything that can get hot. This includes heaters and stovetops, as well as fire-starting materials, such as matches and lighters.
  • Prepare. Have working smoke alarms on every level of your home, inside bedrooms, and outside sleeping areas. Early detection matters because the sooner you know there’s a fire, the more time you have to alert family members and escape. The USFA’s “Don’t Wait—Check the Date!” campaign reminds families to replace their smoke detectors at least every 10 years.
  • Plan. Have a plan for young children that includes waking babies and details on who will help each young child to exit the building. Pre-planning is important whether you live in a single-family home or in a multi-unit building.  

Additional materials available through USFA provide guidance on where to begin when grappling with this fearful subject and reducing your children’s risk of being injured or worse in a fire. 

Steps to protect your family from fires

  • Keep matches and lighters out of children’s reach. According to USFA, many residential fires are caused by curious children who manage to light a match or lighter without understanding the risks or knowing fire safety practices. Keep them not only “out of reach,” but also “out of sight.” While some lighters are marketed as “child-resistant,” none of these products are truly child-proof. 
  • Keep children away from fire. Keep children at least 3 feet away from the stove or grill when cooking. Use child safety gates to ensure young children don’t enter the kitchen when you are cooking, and use knob covers on the stove to help prevent children from turning the dials and causing the burners to ignite. 
  • Limit use of extension cords. According to Electrical Safety Foundation International, extension cords are a leading cause of electrical fires. Use cords only as they are rated (indoor vs. outdoor) and only if they meet or exceed the needs of the appliance. 
  • Be careful with candles and lamps. Don’t leave candles burning unattended. Keep candles and lightbulbs far away from curtains and other fabrics. Keep them out of reach of children. Follow any instructions that come with your candles; don’t let them burn down too low or too long, since this might cause the glass container, if there is one, to break. Don’t drape fabric over lampshades, as these can ignite. 
  • Have your heating system and dryer checked routinely. Have a professional look over the heating system each year, as the temperatures fall and before you turn the unit on for the season. Always clean out the lint collection trap of your dryer, and consider getting your dryer professionally cleaned every couple of years, as particles can accumulate near the heating element. Don’t leave home when your dryer is in use. Make sure there is a smoke detector in close proximity to your dryer.

  • Avoid portable heaters. If you must use them, place them away from any types of paper or fabrics. Make sure they cannot be knocked over by pets or children.

  • If you smoke, be mindful of your habits. Cigarettes are the leading cause of fire deaths in the U.S. and Canada. Consider smoking outside only. The USFA encourages the use of a deep ashtray and soaking the ashes in water. Avoid smoking when drowsy, never smoke in bed, and always make sure your cigarette butts are extinguished before you throw them out.

  • Keep your fireplace clean. Cover fireplaces with a screen to keep sparks inside. Also, burn only wood and make sure the fire is completely extinguished before going to bed or leaving the house.

Ways to prepare for an emergency

Have effective smoke/carbon monoxide detectors. Read Consumer Report’s product guide before you buy. Install them in every bedroom, outside each separate sleeping area, and on every level of your home, including the basement. For best protection, have them interconnected, so that when one sounds the alarm, they all do. If you can’t afford a smoke detector, check with your local fire department, local Red Cross, or 211, a hotline to connect with local resources. Some distribute them for free, or know of community programs that do. 
  • Use and maintain smoke detectors. Change smoke detector batteries every time you change your clocks (both when you “spring ahead” and when you “fall back”). Test them at least that often, if not once each month, as some experts recommend. Replace detectors at least every 10 years to ensure reliability. 
  • Make sure your detectors are connected. We all have “burnt toast” incidents now and then—culinary mishaps that lead us to temporarily disconnect a sounding smoke detector until the smoke clears. Connect it again as soon as possible on the same day.
  • Know your electrical system. Ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) and arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs) prevent electrical shock and fire by shutting off faulty circuits. Check with an electrician or home inspector if you’re not sure whether you have these.
  • Purchase one or two fire extinguishers for your home. Place them where the risk of fire is higher, such as in your kitchen and garage. This may help with a small kitchen or electrical fire, if you can get to it quickly. Do not rely on it for a quickly spreading fire.

How to plan for emergency situations

Make sure your children know what to do in the case of a fire: Get out, right away. Seconds matter, because smoke can kill. A report from the NFPA notes that smoke inhalation causes about twice as many fire deaths as burns. Holding seasonal family fire drills is an important step to keep everyone safe, in houses and apartments alike. Here’s how to get started:

  • Draw up an “escape plan.” Talk about it. Keep the messages age-appropriate, so they are not overwhelming, but as your child grows, invite her to help develop the plan. Plan two routes out of every room. Make sure windows and screens are able to be opened. Consider an “escape ladder” if your house is more than one story, or if you live in an apartment above the ground floor. If possible, practice following the escape plan in the dark or with eyes closed. 
  • Teach children to “get low and go.” Practice crawling, touching doors before opening them, and going to the window.  Show children how to cover their mouths and noses with a cloth to keep out fumes while they escape. 
  • Teach children “stop, drop, and roll” in case an article of clothing catches fire. Practice log rolling (sideways rolling, not somersaults). 
  • Identify a “meet up” spot, in case you are separated. Practice going there. Emphasize that your child should never try to go back inside the house. Not for a pet. Not for a favorite blanket. Not for anything.
  • Let your child know which neighbors can help in an emergency. Talk with your child about how to alert them. Enlist your neighbors in a bit of role-playing to let your child practice these skills. 
  • Teach your children not to hide from firefighters. Firefighters in uniform can sometimes overwhelm a young child, but it is important for children to feel comfortable around them. Some preschools offer opportunities to meet firefighters and see their gear up close. These options are also available through some community events, and can provide a good discussion starter. If you want your child to have an opportunity to become more familiar with firefighting gear, call your local fire station for assistance.

Additional considerations in multi-unit buildings

  •  Don’t prop open exit or stairway doors. These doors can help slow the spread of heat or smoke in a fire.

  •  If you smell smoke, touch your door before you open it.

  • If your apartment door feels warm, leave it closed. Call 911 right away, tell them your apartment number, and let them know you can’t open your door. Put towels or bedding along the cracks of the door, to help prevent smoke from coming in. Go to a window to wait for help.

  •  If your apartment door feels cool, open it slowly. Stay low, and look for fire or smoke in the hallway. If it’s safe, follow your evacuation plan. Be sure to use stairs, and not an elevator.

Keep basic fire safety in mind every time you clean, and perform a quick “safety survey” of each room at least once a month. Check for overburdened outlets, fraying cords, clutter blocking exits, clothing or bedding piled near sources of heat or light, and similar risks. If you’re living in an apartment building, also check smoke detectors in common spaces. Talk with building maintenance about any concerns. Awareness and a few simple routines can help keep your family safe. 

For fire safety resources you can use with your child, visit the USFA and AAP websites. 

Last updated September 19, 2020

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