Every day we use fire to cook our food and heat our homes. But as we all know, fire can be deadly. Each year in the United States, home fires lead to tens of thousands of severe burns and approximately 600 deaths in children under age 14. Half of the children who die are younger than 4, since they are least able to escape. In fact, fires are the number one cause of death in the home for young children.
To protect your family, you need to take the following steps to help prevent fires in the home—and to keep everyone safe in the event of one.
Install and Maintain Smoke Alarms
Smoke alarms give you an early warning of a fire, giving you time to escape with your children before your house is filled with flames and smoke. Most fatal fires occur at night, when people are sleeping, so an early warning is crucial. Smoke alarms can cut the risk of death by 50 percent.
When installing smoke alarms:
Eliminate Fire Hazards from Your Home
Place one inside or outside each bedroom. Make sure there is one on every floor and in the basement. Don’t put a smoke alarm in the kitchen because cooking can trigger false alarms.
Place them on the ceiling or high on the walls (because smoke rises).
Test them every month by pushing the test button. Make sure the children know what to do when they hear the alarm (see Fire Escape Plan below).
Replace the batteries when they get low (when the alarm chirps) or at least once a year. Many people do this when they set the clocks back in the fall.
Go through your home, room by room, to reduce fire hazards:
Keep Fire Safety Equipment on Hand
- Electrical cords and outlets: Don’t overload outlets. Replace frayed or damaged cords. Don’t run cords under the carpet as they can overheat and catch fire.
- Oven/Stove: Clean grease from the oven to prevent grease fires. Potholders, curtains and towels can catch fire, so keep them away from burners. Never leave cooking food unattended.
- Matches, lighters and candles: These are a major cause of children’s deaths. Keep them out of reach and out of sight of children, preferably locked up. Always blow out a candle before you leave the room or go to sleep.
- Fireplace: Use a metal screen or glass door in front of the fireplace. Have fireplaces and chimneys inspected and cleaned once a year.
- Space heaters: Avoid using electric and kerosene heaters. If they must be used, keep them away from clothing, bedding, curtains and furniture. Always turn them off and unplug them when you leave the room or go to bed. Make sure kerosene heaters are well ventilated to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Furnace: Have it inspected once a year. Do not store anything near it that could catch fire.
- Dryer: Lint can catch fire, so clean it from the dryer’s filter after every load.
- Paint, paint thinner, petrololine, propane, kerosene and ammonia: Store flammable liquids in their original containers, with tight-fitting lids. Store them away from heaters and out of children’s reach, ideally locked up in a shed outside the home. Never use petrololine as a cleaning agent.
- Children’s pyjamas: Make sure children’s sleepwear is flame-retardant or close fitting.
- Cigarettes: It is healthiest and safest not to smoke, and not to allow smoking in your home. Never smoke near flammable liquids. Never smoke in bed or when you’re sleepy or have been drinking—this is major cause of home fires.
- Doors and windows: Keep them clear of furniture and stored boxes. Make sure they can open easily in the event of fire.
Additional fire safety equipment can help keep your family safe in a fire. This includes:
Teach your Children Fire Safety and Make a Fire Escape Plan
- A fire extinguisher: Install a fire extinguisher in the kitchen and on every floor of your home. They are for adult use only so keep them out of reach of the children. Review their instructions. Some fire experts advocate the “PASS” method: Pull the pin, aim the nozzle at the base of the flames, squeeze the trigger and swipe the nozzle from side to side across the flames.
- Escape ladders: If your home has more than one story, consider having an escape ladder on each floor upstairs. The ladder needs to be a non-burnable material, like aluminum, not rope. Make sure the ladder is safety-certified and long enough to reach the ground.
- An automatic sprinkler system: If you’re remodeling or building a new home, consider installing a sprinkler system that turns on when it senses heat from a fire.
When a fire starts, children may panic and hide in the closet or under the bed, which makes it difficult to find and rescue them. If they practice the fire escape plan in advance, they are more likely to escape safely. As a general safety tip, teach children not to touch fire, matches or lighters, emphasizing that fire can hurt them.
Fire Escape Plan:
Supervise Your Children at All Times
Draw a floor plan of your home. Mark two ways to exit every room. Take the family into each room and make sure everyone knows the two exits.
Agree on a meeting place outside your home. This is where everyone will go after exiting. This can be a tree, mailbox, street corner, etc.
Teach your child to recognize the sound of the fire alarm, and how to exit the house:
If your clothes catch fire:
- Stop: Don’t run. That can spread the flames.
- Drop: Drop to the ground right away.
- Roll: Cover your face with your hands and roll back and forth to put out the flames on your clothes
Crawl under smoke to get outside. Most fire deaths are caused from people breathing smoke and toxic fumes. The air is clearer near the floor.
Test closed doors with the back of your hand. If it’s hot, use the other exit.
Get outside and go to the agreed meeting place. Don’t hide in the closet or under the bed, and don’t hide from firefighters. If you live in an apartment, use stairs instead of the elevator. If you can’t get out, stand at the window and wave for help. Once outside, don’t go back in. Don’t try to rescue pets or toys.
From outside, call the fire department or 911.
Practice the fire drill. Do this at least twice a year. You can try it at night, while the family is sleeping, to simulate what might happen under those circumstances. Tell babysitters, family and friends your escape plan
Children are curious about fire. They want to look at it and touch it. They also want to imitate adults lighting matches, building fires, cooking and smoking. Therefore, never leave children unattended:
In the kitchen.
In a room with candles, heaters or a burning fireplace.
Outdoors near a barbecue grill.
Note: If your child has special needs such as a developmental delay, blindness, deafness or movement difficulties, ask your doctor or your local fire department about an appropriate fire safety and escape plan.
For more information on fire safety, visit the SAFE KIDS website www.safekids.org.
Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.