Thanks to improved safety technology, tighter building codes and greater public knowledge, the incidence of house fires has dropped dramatically over the past few decades. As a result, most of us feel safe from fire in our homes — but that doesn’t mean we can be complacent. In fact, most house fires are caused by a lapse in caution or lack of awareness. Safeguard your home and family by following these simple but empowering expert fire prevention tips.
1. Educate Your Family & Plan Ahead
Expert tip from Susan McKelvey of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The NFPA is an international nonprofit organization with two main roles: developing technical codes and standards for building and life safety, and educating the public about how to be safe from fire. Founded in 1896 and responsible for over 300 codes and standards, the NFPA is one of the most definitive resources of fire safety expertise.
One downside of the decline in house fires, says NFPA Communications Manager Susan McKelvey, is that it can lead to a degree of carelessness. “The problem is that people think that the risk is low, which has caused a general complacency. The fact is, home is where people are at greatest fire risk. Human behavior and a lack of awareness lead to dangerous or even deadly outcomes.”
According to the latest U.S. data, a house fire occurs every 88 seconds. In 2017, fire departments responded to 357,000 home fires, which resulted in 2,630 fatalities, 10,600 injuries and $7.7 billion in cumulative property loss. Most of these incidents were preventable, in the sense that they were caused by human behavior (like leaving appliances unattended, overloading electrical circuits or the improper disposal of combustible materials) rather than faulty equipment or spontaneous accidents.
Despite a drop in the number of fires, the rate of fire-caused fatalities has remained steady, McKelvey says, partly due to modern building trends like open spaces, the increased use of synthetic materials and lightweight wood construction, all of which cause fires to spread more quickly.
“We used to say that you have 7-8 minutes to leave your home after you hear the smoke alarm. Now, you have more like 1 or 2 minutes from the time the alarm sounds. You really need to be prepared in advance,” says McKelvey.
Core NFPA Recommendations for Fire Preparation & Response
- Properly placed smoke detectors in good working order. There should be at least one smoke detector on every level of the home, including the basement. They should also be near sleeping areas and in every bedroom. The NFPA recommends interconnected devices (when one goes off, they all go off) to allow for the maximum response time. Ideally, smoke detectors should contain both ionization and photoelectric technology, because the former is better for detecting flames, and the latter is better at detecting smoke. Detectors should be tested once a month.
- Plan and practice your family fire escape plan. Sit down with all members of your household. Draw a floorplan. Mark two exits from every room. These exits should be kept clear of clutter and potential obstacles on an ongoing basis. Pick an outside meeting place away from the home, where everyone will meet when the alarm sounds, where an emergency call can be made. Address who will be assisting young children or any elderly family members. Run fire drills where everyone can practice getting out and meeting in the assigned place. For maximum readiness, make sure to practice at different times of the day to determine any issues that could arise from being in the dark or in different parts of the home.
2. To Prevent Fires, Slow Down & Be Mindful
Expert tip from Darrel Depot, Owner of PuroClean in Williston, VT. PuroClean is a restoration and remediation company that assists investigators in identifying causes of property damage after the fact, including fire and smoke damage. Depot has been assessing and repairing fire damage for over 14 years.
Fire remediation professional Darrel Depot has ample firsthand knowledge of how much destruction even a small fire can cause. His one piece of advice that could apply to anybody? “Slow down a little bit. Everyone is in a rush, including myself. Take a few minutes to think about what’s going on before you leave the house.”
He also adds a few words of caution to apartment and condo dwellers: Get renters insurance. “In multi-unit buildings, you may find yourself responsible for other people’s mistakes. If the unit next door catches on fire and it wrecks your apartment, you have to pay for your own stuff regardless of where it started or how it started.”
Tips from a Fire Remediation Expert
- Unplug all small appliances whenever you’re not using them. Many fires start when power strips are overloaded; unplugging mitigates this risk. Additionally, the synthetic materials used to build appliances do not burn clean. Depot recalls one incident where a malfunctioning dehumidifier cost $40,000 in cleaning damage due to soot, oil and grease caused by the fire.
- Never store anything in the oven or on the stovetop. Leftovers, Tupperware, and pizza boxes are common culprits here. Again, burning plastic creates an incommensurate amount of smoke and damage. Even if a fire is quickly quelled, a burnt plastic bowl may cause $5,000-$10,000 of smoke-induced damage.
- Clean out the dryer vent at least twice a year, depending on the volume of usage. This goes beyond just cleaning out the lint trap (which should be done for every load of laundry) — it involves cleaning out the pipe that runs from the dryer to the external vent and usually must be performed by a professional.
- Be especially careful when heating your home. Dirty chimneys and careless use of space heaters are top concerns in cold climates. Have your chimneys professionally serviced at least once per year and don’t run space heaters near flammable materials or on overloaded power strips.
3. Adults Should Resist Distractions & Know How To Use A Fire Extinguisher
Expert tip from Andrew Roszak, Executive Director of the Institute for Childhood Preparedness. Andrew Roszak is an award-winning firefighter/paramedic, turned attorney and childhood emergency preparedness expert, who has personally trained over 15,000 child care providers on how to respond and plan for emergencies.
On average, Roszak says, about 560 fires occur in early childhood care settings each year. “Most of the time (nearly 80%) the fires are caused by distractions. No real shock there – as anyone that cares or has cared for children can certainly appreciate how distracting they can sometimes be.”
Unattended cooking is a common fire hazard, Roszak says you should “[u]tilize technology – timers on your cell phones, smart-home devices (Amazon Echo or Google Home) to set timers and reminders or even something as simple as a post-it note to remind you that there is active cooking occurring.” You can also schedule smart reminders to unplug certain appliances, or to schedule your home maintenance and smoke alarm testing.
Be Prepared To Use The Fire Extinguisher
- Roszak emphasizes that fire extinguishers are there for a reason. Children should always be evacuated in the event of a fire, but adults should be ready and willing to operate a fire extinguisher if it doesn’t put their own safety at grievous risk.
- To use a fire extinguisher, remember the PASS technique: “It is amazing how many people are not aware of how to operate a fire extinguisher. A simple way to remember is the PASS technique – Pull the pin, Aim the nozzle, Squeeze the handle, Sweep at the base of the fire from side to side. Also, be sure to check the fire extinguishers in your home and in your workplace – as they can expire and lose pressure,” Roczak says. Many of his training sessions include hands-on practice with a fire extinguisher.
4. Learn Which Home Appliances Can Be Unexpected Fire Starters
Expert tips compiled from Craig Gjelsten, VP of Operations at Rainbow International and Rob Mathews, Franchise Owner of Mr. Appliance of Cleveland/Akron. Rainbow International specializes in water damage, fire damage and mold restoration services. Mr. Appliance provides full-service repairs and maintenance for all major household appliances. Both are Neighborly companies, which connects homeowners with vetted home professionals.
The most well-known causes of household fires include things like candles, smoking materials, malfunctioning appliances and overloaded power strips. But what other common culprits may not be as well known?
- Batteries: All batteries pose a fire risk, even those with a weak charge. However, 9-volt batteries are the biggest culprit of fire due to the close proximity of their terminals, which can easily short. To avoid this, a battery storage case is highly recommended. Alternatively, store unused batteries in their original packaging, not lying around loose, or store them standing upright, placing electrical tape over the ends of each battery (all types – not just 9-volts) to prevent shorts. Do not store batteries in metal containers, or near other metal items such as keys, steel wool, and aluminum foil.
- Light Bulbs: Overlamping, or using a light bulb over the recommended wattage for a given outlet, can easily result in a home fire. The lightbulb socket is usually labelled with maximum recommended wattage. In addition, be cautious with compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). These spiral-shaped bulbs could result in fire when improperly used. Avoid using CFLs in any lighting unit where the base of the bulb is enclosed by the fixture, such as with track and recessed lighting. If your CFLs are burning out early and you notice they are brown at the base when you remove them, the bulbs are overheating and could result in fire. Use cooler-burning bulbs instead, such as LEDs.
- Laptops: Laptops can get hot during normal operation, and when placed on a blanket or similar surface, the batteries can overheat and cause a house fire. Never leave your laptop on a bed, couch or any place where its cooling vents are blocked.
- Stacks of newspapers and magazines: Items you plan to read eventually can ignite quickly if left too close to a heat source. If you must keep old newspapers or magazines, be certain to store them in a cool, dry place in short stacks.
- Heating blankets and pads: Defective, old or improperly used blankets and heating pads can result in fire. To prevent fires, read and adhere to all manufacturer’s operating instructions. Additionally, do not place the cord between the mattress and box spring, or in any location where it may be pinched or folded. Avoid bunching and keep the blanket or pad flat when in use. Use these items on the lowest setting no longer than the recommended time. Wash them carefully and never dry, iron, or dry clean them, which can melt heating wire insulation and increase fire risks.
- Closet clutter: A sweater stack a mile high could easily come into contact with a light bulb and ignite. Don’t store your clothing, textiles or any other combustible material near light fixtures. Keep belongings far away from the bulbs.
- Dust: Dust bunnies around electronics, sockets, and heaters can ignite and start fires. Regularly vacuum dust near outlets, wires, and appliances, including crevices and areas behind furniture.
- Microwaves: It’s a fire hazard to heat items that are not microwave-safe. Consumers also don’t realize how much grease accumulates around the wave guides (the little holes in the microwave’s ceiling). Be careful not to accidentally microwave metal of any kind, including metal edged bowls, foil and twist ties. Keep the microwave clean by regularly wiping down the interior with hot soapy water.
- Refrigerator: Look out for dust and lint accumulating behind and under refrigerators, especially around the electrical components and exposed wires. If you pull out the fridge to clean it, then shove it back without looking, you can run over and damage the power cord, creating an obvious hazard. Regularly and gently clean behind and around your fridge (specifically the coils), keeping the cord out of the way.
- Oven: Over time, grease and food particles can build up on the oven walls, racks, and floor. In sufficient quantities, this buildup may ignite when heated. It’s important to never leave food unattended and to clean your oven on a regular basis. Before turning the oven on, check the bottom for loose debris and remove it.
- Good to know: If you ever you smell any type of burning odor coming out of any appliance, immediately unplug it from the power supply.
5. Don’t Underestimate Monitored Home Security Systems
Tip from Louis Wood, Home Security Expert and Owner of Defend It Yourself. Louis Wood has 20+ years of experience planning and designing security systems for homes and businesses.
There’s no doubt that properly functioning smoke detectors can be lifesavers. But what if no one is home when the fire breaks out, or if someone is incapacitated and unable to leave? In those cases, an alarm isn’t enough. “In my professional opinion, devices monitored by an alarm system that can signal a siren and contact the authorities when they detect alarm conditions are preferential to more inexpensive local-only detection devices,” says Wood.
To fully empower yourself in the fight against house fires, check out our further discussion of the best smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, professionally installed security systems and DIY monitored home security options.