In 2016, 371,500 residential buildings caught fire in blazes unrelated to wildfires, resulting in more than $5 billion in damage, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Fortunately, the number of fatalities caused by house fires has fallen in recent decades, says Josh Stout, a fire safety expert with the Red Cross Community Preparedness Program. “Prevention through education has reduced the number of house fires that take lives and injure people,” he says.
Of course, preventing a fire from starting in the first place is a good goal for everyone. Here are some recommendations for protecting your home and family.
Watch the Kitchen
The room of the house where fires occur most often is the kitchen, says Stout, and cooking on the stove produces more fires than cooking in the oven. “Stay in the kitchen when you’re cooking, especially if you’re using the stovetop,” he says. “It’s the most important thing you can do to prevent a fire of this type.” If a pot or pan does catch fire when cooking with oil, he says, cover the flames and remove it from the heat. Never douse a fire on the stovetop with water. “That can cause an explosion of the oil and start a fire in the kitchen very quickly,” he says.
Don’t Overwork Your Outlets
Outlets in each room of the house can pose a risk if not used properly. According to Consumer Product Safety Commission statistics, outlets or receptacles were responsible for injuries that sent some 5,500 people to emergency rooms in 2015. Pay special attention to appliances; they can draw a lot of power and could overload electrical circuits, which may cause a fire. Stout recommends plugging large appliances directly into wall outlets, not into extension cords and power strips. For smaller, heat-producing appliances, such as a coffee maker or toaster, plug in one at a time, and unplug them when they’re not in use. In a home with small children, install tamper-resistant receptacles or outlets. Tamper-resistant receptacles have spring-loaded shutters that close off the slots of the receptacle. These are important in making a home a safe place for children.
Give It Some Space
“Always keep space heaters at least three feet from anything that can burn,” says Stout. “That doesn’t just mean three feet from a wall, but from things like curtains, rugs, furniture, bedding and dish towels too.” Avoid putting cords where they can be damaged or pinched by furniture, under rugs or carpets, or across doorways, suggests the NFPA.
Keep It Clean
According to the NFPA, an estimated 15,970 home fires from 2010 to 2014 involved washers or dryers. Most commonly, the culprits were dust, fibers and lint—problems avoidable by simply cleaning the lint filter before each use. The NFPA also recommends checking the air vent pipe at least once a year and removing lint that may have built up. Likewise, inspect the outlet and plug to ensure the machine is hooked up properly.
Get the Right Stuff
Despite your best efforts, a fire can still happen. If it does, says Stout, “having just one working smoke alarm in a home could reduce the chances of dying in a fire by 50 percent.” But he recommends you have more. “Install one in each bedroom and areas outside bedrooms, and make sure there’s at least one alarm on every floor,” he says. Stout suggests testing the batteries every month—and replace your smoke alarms at least every 10 years.
Fire extinguishers are also effective tools for preventing house fires, he says, but of course you have to know how to use them. Stout recommends contacting your local fire department for information and training.
Have an Escape Plan
“If a fire starts in your home, you may have less than two minutes to escape safely,” says Stout. “Start by mapping out an escape plan that includes two ways out of every room and a meeting place outside,” he advises. Call 911 only after you are outside of the home, never from inside, he says. And never, under any circumstances, return inside a building that is burning, he says. Ensure your valuables and essential documents are secure by investing in a fireproof safe. In the event of an emergency, it’s always best to have copies of important documents (personal identification, insurance policies, a home inventory of property) kept digitally or in a safe place outside of the home.
By Patrick Rogers
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