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Is Your Home Fire Safe? Are You Sure?

Updated on December 4, 2013
Aftermath of a kitchen fire. Note the appliances are still white, just above them you can see a clear line on the wall. Above that line is where the superheated gasses and smoke are during a fire, near the floor is clear air as discussed in the text
Aftermath of a kitchen fire. Note the appliances are still white, just above them you can see a clear line on the wall. Above that line is where the superheated gasses and smoke are during a fire, near the floor is clear air as discussed in the text
Sample home fire escape plan
Sample home fire escape plan
Author as Ass't Chief Boyd Fire Dept., 1992
Author as Ass't Chief Boyd Fire Dept., 1992 | Source

How many headlines have you seen this year similar to this:

House Fire Kills Two

I see them too many times. I've been there when those headlines were made.

I removed the body of a disabled man from the remains of his mobile home, took the body of a 4 year-old girl from a closet where she tried to hide from the fire that gutted her family's apartment. I've smelled the burned flesh, seen the anguish of the families when we told them, "I'm sorry, there was nothing we could do," while knowing there was something they could've done. Knowing it shouldn't have happened.

A firefighter's job is tough enough folks, we don't need fatalities making it any tougher, and you don't need the terrible heartache of burying a child who needn't have died.

So I ask you: Is your home fire safe? If a fire occurs, can your family escape? Are you sure?

This is gonna be a lengthy article, but it could save your life, or your child's.

We firefighters know we can't save every life, but we'll save every life we can. You can make that just a little easier by educating yourself and being can save your own life.

National Fire Safety Week concluded on Oct. 15th....Did you learn anything from it? Did you even know about it?

Let's take a look at some ways to make your home fire safe.

First: Smoke detectors, strategically placed. The more, the better. Got 'em? Are the batteries good? You sure? Check 'em...right now...get up and go check 'em. I'll wait on ya.

Next along this line is placement. Where are they? The most common places for home fires to start are: the kitchen, water heater, furnace or fireplace, and room heaters. Is there a smoke detector placed such that smoke will reach it quickly enough to give you the earliest possible warning?

I'll give you an example: I live in a small 3 bedroom townhome. Kitchen, dining room, living room and a half bath downstairs, All 3 bedrooms, master bath, furnace and water heater all upstairs: Master bedroom to the front of the house, 2 bedrooms to the back with the bath and water heater in between on a "T" shaped hallway, furnace at the left end of the T, 8" to the right of my daughter's bedroom door looking from the bedroom. The water heater closet is 1" outside my bedroom door on my right looking from the bedroom. Smoke detectors are placed on the kitchen ceiling, and at the top of the "T" upstairs.

See a problem?

Second: Escape Routes. The downstairs portion of my house poses no real problems for escaping a fire: back door in the kitchen, front door and a large picture window in the living room gets you out in seconds.

Upstairs, I got problems. A fire starting in the furnace immediately blocks my daughter's bedroom door making escape difficult, if not impossible. A fire starting in the water heater, ditto for Mom and me. The boys will have the easiest time getting out and down the stairs, with the back door to the right of the foot of the stairs.

That leaves the upstairs windows. Now, being an old firefighter I have an advantage here: I know how to rappel, and have the gear for it. I've also taught the family the skill, and I keep a coil of rope and belts/carabiners in each room (yeah, I know: teenagers with a sneaky way out of the house... I'll take that risk).

We also have a designated meeting place once everybody's out.

How about you? Got an escape plan? Do you practice it? Does everybody know what to do in the event of a fire? Again: Are you sure?

If you have a two-story home or live in a second floor or higher apartment, the need for a good escape plan is paramount. Doors and stairways may or may not be usable. Knowing how to rappel isn't necessary, but having a rope or rope ladder to get you safely out and to the ground is something you should very strongly consider. Remember: all you need is to get safely to the ground, it doesn't need to be fancy and certainly not complicated, just something to keep you from hitting the ground like somebody in a Warner Bros. cartoon.

Draw up an escape plan, discuss it, make sure everybody knows what to do, how to get out, and where to meet up. Then practice it.

Hey Dad, try this: Just quietly sit up really late one night, then, after everybody is good and asleep, set off the smoke detectors and get everybody out. Time it.

Getting out isn't as simple as it sounds. During a fire, thick smoke cuts visibility to zero or near zero. Ceiling temperatures can reach 1,000+ degrees. But near the floor is breathable air, and though it's still hot as hell, it's survivable and offers some visibility (sometimes).

You're awakened in the dead of night by the smoke alarm. What do you do? First, roll out of bed to the floor. Do not sit up, stand up or try to walk or run. Get on the floor quickly and crawl to the door. Feel it with the back of your hand (it's more sensitive), is it hot? Next carefully check the door knob (don't just grab it), is it hot? If it's yes to either DO NOT OPEN that damn door. Get to the window, open it, climb out, then close it. Leaving it open will speed up the spread of the fire. It's moving fast enough already, no sense in helping it along.

Now if you're on the 2nd floor, get that rope I told you about, tie one end to the bed frame, throw the other end out the window, and climb down the rope. Again, close the window if you can safely do so. Remember your holding on to a rope, and it's a long fall. Safety first. Just get to the ground.

Look at the photo from the kitchen fire (2nd down): Notice the appliances are white. Now look at the wall just above the appliances. You see that line where the wall starts to turn black? That's where the 'thermal balance' was. Above that line was smoke and superheated gasses and they will kill you- not might kill you, will kill you. And, the longer the fire burns, the more the heat builds the lower that line gets. Oh. by the way, the number 1 cause of death in fire fatalities: smoke inhalation and respiratory burns. Looking at the picture, you can trace that line all the way around the room. Anyway, below that line was breathable air. The closer to the floor you go, the better the air gets. The still-white appliances tell me there was clean air down low. I chose this photo because it is a textbook illustration of where the danger is during a fire. Just from the photo, I would guess the ceiling temp in this room to be at least 800 degrees, probably 600 or so six feet up from the floor. This is why we tell you to crawl, it's why firefighters go into a structure fire on all fours. Remember we have SCBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus) and bunkers to protect us and we still come in low, you do not...get low, stay low.

In many fires, you'll be in a zero visibility environment that's hot as hell and getting hotter. Maybe you got a little smoke in the eyes (damn, that stings!), maybe even a breath or two of the stuff in your lungs, and you're scared half to death. Under these conditions, disorientation is not uncommon. You can get lost in your own house. It happens on a regular basis: someone trying to escape a fire gets disoriented, panics, can't find the way out and becomes trapped within arm's length of a door or window. Sometimes we get to 'em in time, sometimes not.

Here's a firefighter's trick: Crawl straight ahead til you hit a wall, then follow the wall, running your hand up and down it as far as you can reach. Sooner or later, you'll find either a door or window (probably encountering furniture along the way). Remember, if you're crawling like you're supposed to, the bottom of most windows will be above you, so run your hand up and down feeling the wall as you go along. If you're near a window, you'll hit it. When you come to a door, check it for heat first and if safe open it it carefully. Remember: It could be a closet, it could be the bathroom. Make sure it really is an exit before going through it: reach inside as far as you can first. Even if you think you know where you are, stay in contact with the wall, use it as a guide, it will lead to one way out or other. Be careful not to take a tumble down the stairs if you're on a second floor.

On my fire department (and many others) we had a search and rescue drill we ran every so often. We'd take old air masks, black them out so you can't see out of them. Then don full gear, including SCBA, replacing the actual SCBA's mask with the blackout mask and make entry into the training building, try to find the rescue dummy, and make our way back out. By the way, we were timed on it.

You can do a version of this in your home fire escape drill. Simply blindfold everybody, spin 'em around a couple of times and let them find their way out of the house.

I don't have room in this article, so click to Learn a bit about fire behavior. It's good info, and knowledge is life. Use it.

So now you know you need smoke detectors, an escape plan, and the basics of how to get out of a fire.

How about an ounce of prevention? Let's take a walk-thru. We'll start in the living room: Got a fireplace or wood stove? It's Autumn, ya know. You'll probably be using it very soon. When was the last time the chimney was cleaned out? They're not exactly maintenance-free. Soot and creosote build up in chimneys over time, sooner or later it's gotta light off. Chimney fires account for approximately 20% of residential fire calls, and about 5% of fire related fatalities each year. Now might be a good time to schedule having it done by a qualified professional. Probably won't be cheap, but it's cheaper than a new house, medical bills and funeral costs.

What about a space heater? Is it gas or electric? What kind of shape is it in? Are you sure? If it's a gas heater, are the valves in good shape? Do they operate easily? Any leaks? What about the supply line? Is it a flexible hose or hard line? If it's a hose, are there any cracks or dry rot? Are all the fittings good and tight? No, you idiot! Do not turn on the gas and use a match to check for leaks! Take a spray bottle, fill it with soapy water, then turn the gas on and spray the lines, valves and fittings and look for bubbles to start blossoming. That'll show you the leaks. Get 'em fixed before you blow yourself to kingdom come. While you're at it, have the air mixture checked for proper setting. If it's getting too much air, it could flare out of control, too little air and the carbon monoxide goes off the scale, as does your heating bill. And that reminds me: Carbon monoxide detectors. If you have a gas or fuel oil heated home, you need them. Trust me: I lost my brother, Max, to carbon monoxide poisoning in 1965. Get them.

If you have an electric heater, how old is it? Are the elements in good shape? No cracks or breaks? What about the plug and the cord? Are they good? No splices, no discoloration, cord still pliable? Plug it in and turn it on. Is the unit operating as advertised? Now check the cord, see if it is getting hot. If it is, you got a problem. That cord should not be heating up. If everything checks out so far, tip it over. Did it turn itself off? If not, cut the cord and put it in the trash.

If everything checks out okay, then use some common sense in operating it: Always plug it directly into a wall outlet, never into an extension cord, not even an industrial strength cord. These things draw way to many amps, and the longer the cord, the more power it takes to run it, causing the cord to overheat...I've seen them melt.

Obviously, you want to set the unit where it'll do the most good, just be sure there is nothing such as curtains, bedding, furniture, or other flammable materials within 36 inches and set it on a level, hard, nonflammable surface such as ceramic tile.

Since we're on the subject: Each year, home appliance and wiring problems account for 49,000 fires, making them the number one cause of home fires. How's your electrical system? How old is it? Any modifications? Do you blow any breakers on a regular basis? Do your lights sorta flicker from time to time? Do they dim if you put something in the microwave? Any odors? Any snaps, crackles or pops when there's no Rice Crispies to be found? Go through the house, check your outlets. Do any of them heat up when in operation? Again: Any discoloration in the plug, on the cover plate or wall? Home electrical wiring causes twice as many fires as electrical appliances. If you have any doubts about your home's wiring, have them thoroughly checked.

Let's go to the kitchen. How many electrical appliances do you have? How many gas? Same questions: How old are they? Had any problems? Any of them responsible for blown breakers? Any odors when in operation? Pull the fridge out from the wall: check the motor and coolant lines. Pay close attention to the motor and it's connections, are they clean? How big are the dust bunnies? Clean it thoroughly, dust, trash and lint can cause the unit to overheat and catch fire. Also make sure there's plenty of air circulating to keep it cool.

Do the same with all the other appliances, especially the stove and dryer. Both of those generate tremendous amounts of heat, and in the case of the dryer, lint can build up and catch fire. Check the vent, make sure it's clear. If you have an electric stove, check the elements and their connections. Are the elements working properly? Are they misshapen? All the wiring good? If not, have it checked.

Got a gas stove? Same questions as with the gas heater above. What ignition source does it have: a pilot light, or electric igniter? Has it given you any problems? Has the pilot ever gone out?

Before you go over the river and through the woods to Grandma's house for the long Thanksgiving Weekend, cut the gas to the stove and the water heater. It'll save on the gas bill, and should the pilot go out (despite certain safeties these appliances should have), gas could continue to flow through it. Given enough time- for instance, the weekend- gas could build up in the house, find an ignition source and more house.

Funny thing about natural gas: it has no odor. The gas companies put the odor we're all familiar with into it during the refining process. Let's say one day you start smelling gas. It's obvious you have a leak. First: DO NOT light a cigarrette, DO NOT turn lghts on or off, the switch could spark and blow you to kingdom come. Open the windows to get air flowing through the house, displacing the gas. Then get the hell out and call the Fire Department and gas company.

Are you like me? Not a damn bit politically correct, still like to fry stuff? What if a grease fire starts while you're cooking? Don't even think of trying to take the pan off the stove, you will screw up big time. The grease will splash everywhere, spreading fire all over the kitchen, it'll get all over you and you will catch fire...not a good thing. Don't throw water on it, you'll get the same result. First, turn the burner off, removing the heat source. Second, either cover the pan with the appropriate sized lid (which you should have handy, anyway), or pour baking powder on the fire, cutting off the air supply and smothering the fire. Then back out and call the Fire Department.

What about the water heater and furnace? Have you checked them in recent memory? Does either one have any problems? Again, get 'em checked.

People, the NUMBER ONE MOST PREVENTABLE accidental cause of death in America is from fire-related causes. Nobody, and I mean nobody, should lose their life in a fire. It is not a good way to go. It is terrifying and painful. Victims suffer, often lingering for days or weeks before succumbing. Survivors are often scarred physically and emotionally for life. The families left behind are traumatized.

But, a little knowledge and an ounce of prevention can save your life and the lives of your family.

Of course, I can't cover everything in one article and this one's gotten long enough, don't you think? Here are some links you can go to for more info:


Or, you can always visit your local Fire Department, we're happy to help. We'll even come out and inspect the place to help you identify potential problems if ya want.

Be safe.


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    • Levellandmike profile imageAUTHOR

      Mike Simmons 

      6 years ago from Levelland, Texas

      I published this in 2011. This past Thanksgiving weekend, we buried a close family friend who lost her life in a fire in her home.

      She suffered burns over 30% of her body, respiratory burns, smoke inhalation and hypoxia (lack of oxygen) resulting in massive irreversable brain damage.

      Dorothy Birchfield passed away from her injuries 2 days later.

      It shouldn't have happened.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 

      8 years ago from Indiana

      Very useful tips -thanks for sharing. A young college girl just recently died in my town because the person she was visiting disabled a smoke detector in the apartment they were renting because it was beeping (battery needed replacing). One small mistake like that cost a life - so sad!


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