Roughly seven people die every day in the U.S. as a result of home fires. Kids under the age of five have a much higher risk of dying in a residential fire compared to children in other age groups, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. In fact, among the thousands of children killed or injured in home fires each year, more than 40 percent are under five years of age.
Young kids aren’t as capable of exiting a home or understanding the dangers of fire risks, so parents must take extra precautions to reduce fire risk in the home, including installing fire safety equipment and preparing comprehensive safety and evacuation plans to ensure children escape safely.
Install and test smoke alarms
Three out of five home fire deaths in 2010-2014 occurred in homes with no smoke alarms or no working smoke alarms. And while you can take steps to reduce fire hazards, there’s little that can be done to predict and prevent a random wiring malfunction that could lead to a devastating fire. Smoke alarms serve as a first alert, letting your family know there’s imminent danger and providing a few moments warning for you to enact your fire safety plan.
If you don’t have smoke alarms installed, your local fire department may offer them free or at a reduced cost. You can also opt for wireless alarm systems that are interconnected, sounding all the alarms in the home for better notification of a problem in one area of the home. Those extra few seconds can be enough to save the lives of your young kids.
Follow these recommendations from the U.S. Fire Administration to install or update your home smoke alarms:
- Install a smoke alarm on every floor of your home, even the basement.
- Install a smoke alarm outside every sleeping area. Ideally, install smoke alarms in every sleeping area, too.
- Replace smoke alarms after 10 years.
Also, be sure to test your smoke alarms at least twice annually—some experts advise testing monthly. You should also change the batteries every six months, at minimum, to ensure proper functioning.
Reduce fire threats in the home
It takes about two minutes for a small flame to turn into a life threatening fire and just five minutes for a fire to engulf an entire home, according to Ready.gov. Putting in place fire prevention measures to avoid a home fire altogether is the best fire safety practice.
While prevention isn’t a 100 percent guarantee, there are many precautions you can take in your home to reduce fire hazards and keep your kids safe. Follow these recommendations to address common household fire hazards and protect your family from a home fire catching in your home:
- Don’t overload electric outlets, extension cords or wall sockets. Stringing multiple extension cords together in order to plug several appliances into the same outlet is a bad idea.
- Reduce clutter. This is especially important in the kitchen, where dish towels, sponges, paper towels, and other items can catch fire if placed too close to a hot stove. But it’s also important in all areas of your home – blankets and clothing piled up against a heat run, for instance, can also pose a fire hazard. As a rule, keep combustible materials at least three feet from the stove burners, and never leave cooking unattended.
- Don’t leave burning candles unattended. A candle can fall for a multitude of reasons, lighting carpets, curtains or furniture ablaze. This can also happen if a candle is allowed to burn down too low, causing its glass container to break and freeing the flame.
- Hide all matches and lighters out of reach of young children. Even responsible children can accidentally light a fire if they encounter a lighter or match and try it out of curiosity. It’s best to place these items well out of reach of kids.
- Always have multiple working fire extinguishers conveniently located in your home. You should always have a fire extinguisher in the kitchen, for instance, as it’s a common location for fires to occur from cooking and other hazards.
- Replace circuit breakers with arc-fault circuit interrupters. These gadgets pick up on electrical arcs, usually caused by poor insulation or loose wires or connections, and halt them before they lead to fires.
- Replace electrical outlets. Faulty electrical outlets can be a source of home fires, too. If plugs seem to be loose or fall out, the blades inside may have loosened. Loose blades create excessive heat, which can lead to fires.
- Give your clothes dryer proper maintenance. Cleaning the lint catcher thoroughly with every load is just the starting point. Over time, lint and other particles can build up in the vent system or dryer cabinet (where the heating element is located) and potentially cause fires. Having your dryer cabinet professionally cleaned every two years can also reduce potential fire risks.
- Keep an eye on garage safety. Heated garages pose another threat to your home’s safety. If your garage contains a workshop, where even a thin layer of sawdust is present, and a heating appliance – whether a portable kerosene heater, wood stove, coal stove or anything else – there’s a fire risk. Sawdust is easily combustible, so employ a heavy-duty vacuum like a Shop Vac to remove as much sawdust as possible.
- Don’t use really old appliances. A great find in your parent’s attic might seem like a money-saver, but old appliances weren’t manufactured up to par with modern safety standards. That means a vintage record player is only a nostalgic piece of art if it’s unplugged. Otherwise, it’s a fire hazard.
- Only use portable space heaters certified by the Underwriters Laboratory (UL). It’s best not to use portable space heaters at all. But if you must, ensure that it’s a certified appliance and keep any combustible objects and materials at least three feet from the appliance. Only use K-1 type kerosene in a kerosene heater, and check with your local authorities to find out if it’s legal to use them in your area.
- Don’t smoke inside, and never smoke indoors where portable oxygen is used. Portable oxygen is 100 percent pure oxygen, making it extremely flammable – in fact, it’s explosive and makes fire burn hotter and faster. The air we breathe contains only about 20 percent oxygen. This deadly combination has caused many unfortunate deaths and devastating burns.
- Use proper heat sources and conduct regular maintenance. Wood stoves, coal stoves, oil furnaces and any other heat source should be regularly inspected, cleaned and maintained. This reduces the likelihood of dangerous chimney fires. Never use a cooking stove as a heat source in the home.
Create a home fire escape safety plan
Upwards of 75% of U.S. homes do not have a fire escape plan that they practice regularly. Creating a fire escape plan and practicing it with your kids is critical to protecting your family’s safety in a fire emergency. Kids as young as age three can typically follow a fire escape plan, according to FEMA. Every child is different, so base your plans on your child’s individual abilities. For children younger than three or those not able to adequately follow detailed instructions, you’ll need a more comprehensive escape plan.
In addition, FEMA recommends the following steps:
- Keep all exits clear of toys and debris.
- Draw a diagram of your home and plan two escape routes.
- Practice, practice, practice.
- Keep children’s doors closed. This slows the time it takes for smoke from hallway fires to enter the room, leaving more time for firefighters to rescue young kids.
- Have a safe meeting place outside the home. It should be far enough away from the structure that you will be safe if the building collapses, but close enough that your kids can get there easily.
Ready.gov also offers some advice on preparing for a fire before it happens:
- Always have two routes of escape from every room. In addition to the door, find an alternate escape route, such as a window that leads to a neighboring roof or a window with a collapsible ladder for escaping from upper-story windows.
- Test windows to ensure screens can be removed easily and windows aren’t stuck shut from multiple layers of paint or swollen wood frames.
- When you practice fire escape plans, do it in the dark or with your eyes closed. Have kids do the same to ensure they can navigate the way out safely and quickly.
- During your fire escape practice, use multiple scenarios and practice rescuing infants via multiple methods.
- Consider installing an automatic fire sprinkler system in your home, especially if you have an infant or toddler. These devices detect fires and activate sprinklers, which can help douse flames and provide a few extra critical minutes or seconds to evacuate the home.
Tips to teach your kids about fire safety
There are a few things that are critically important to teach young kids about fire safety, in addition to planning and practicing a fire escape route:
- The Stop, Drop and Roll technique – Stop moving, lie down and roll if clothing catches fire.
- Crawl through rooms and hallways to avoid smoke inhalation.
- Touch doors before opening – if the door is hot, don’t open it.
- Never re-enter the building for any reason once safely outside.
- Fire is a tool, not a toy.
- Never pick up matches or lighters if found. Instead, tell an adult right away.
- Never leave children unattended around any fire hazard, including cooking stoves, candles, portable heaters, or any other heat source. Teach toddlers and young kids to stay at least three feet away from any common heat source or hazard in your home.
KeepKidsFireSafe.org offers an abundance of resources and materials to teach kids about fire safety, including coloring pages, perfect for toddlers who don’t yet have a firm grasp of language communication.
Fire safety for kids: Local fire department resources
Your local fire department may also offer child safety kits, including window decals to alert first responders to the rooms in which your kids may be sleeping. This lets them quickly locate and retrieve your child from a burning building, drastically increasing their chances of survival.
Take a tour of your local fire station to familiarize your kids with fire fighters in uniform. Teach them that fire fighters are friendly heroes – this prevents them from shying away or even running away from fire fighters in hazardous situations. Those extra few minutes – or even seconds – could save your child’s life.
Most fire departments offer families assistance creating fire safety plans free of charge. Invite your local fire station to your home to help you devise the most efficient escape routes. They will also check your smoke alarms and fire extinguishers, and can even point out fire hazards in your home that you weren’t aware of.
To find a fire department near you, use The National Fire Department Census Database to search by city or address. You’ll find all fire departments registered with the USFA, along with addresses and basic information on each department.
What to do during a home fire
Heat and smoke are actually more dangerous than the flames in a home fire. Inhaling hot air can burn the lungs, and smoke inhalation can cause lung damage or asphyxiation. People are three times more likely to die from asphyxiation than burns in a home fire. During a fire, carbon monoxide is released, a poisonous gas that can also lead to death.
The first course of action in a home fire is to attempt to escape. Heavy smoke and poisonous gases accumulate first near the ceiling. Teach toddlers to crouch low or crawl through rooms and hallways under the smoke to reduce exposure as much as possible. If you’re navigating your escape route with a baby, hold the infant securely under your body with one arm. This provides a shield for your baby if something should fall on top of you, and also keeps your infant as low as possible to the ground to avoid smoke and gas inhalation.
If you’re unable to evacuate the home because fire has taken over all available exit routes, stay put. Cover cracks around doors with cloth or tape to keep as much smoke and gas out as possible. Equip babies’ and kids’ bedrooms with bright flashlights. If you and your baby or toddler are trapped, use the flashlight to alert rescue crews to your location through the windows. Teach kids to do the same in case they become trapped alone.
BabyCenter.com recommends teaching toddlers to lie on the floor next to their beds if trapped in their rooms. If possible, teach your toddler to lie on the floor while shining the flashlight towards the window. This keeps your kids as low to the ground as possible, where the least amount of smoke and gas has collected, while still alerting rescuers to his location. Firefighters are trained to look next to a child’s bed first upon entering a room, ensuring that they will find your child quickly – providing a few more valuable seconds to get your toddler outside safely.
If your kids’ clothing has caught fire and they aren’t able to stop, drop and roll, quench the flames with blankets or towels. If possible, immediately treat the burns with cool water for three to five minutes and cover with a clean, dry cloth until help arrives.
Help your kids cope after a home fire
Babies are often too young to recall a home fire, but younger kids are cognizant enough that a devastating fire can cause significant emotional problems after the event. Kids must cope with the loss of their familiar home and their most prized possessions, and in the worst cases, possibly the death of a sibling, parent, or another loved one.
Young children have a difficult time fully grasping the concept that things can be replaced, but people cannot. Toddlers may experience fear, confusion and insecurity in the days, weeks and even months after a home fire.
Children may also exhibit other common after-effects of fires and disasters like:
- Anxiety, clinging or dependency, and new separation anxiety
- Sleep disturbances, nightmares, sudden fear of the dark
- Anger, acting out and tantrums
- Unexplained aches and pains
- Bedwetting and other atypical behavior, regression
Even if your child wasn’t present when the fire occurred, sudden uprooting of the living environment and the loss of favorite blankets or stuffed animals can cause confusion and distress. You may want to consult a professional psychologist to help your child navigate his grief, but there are ways you can help your kids cope as well.
Take these cues to help your kids cope with the after-effects of a home fire:
- Involve your child in a disaster recovery plan
- Give your child a chance to share or express feelings
- Validate your child’s concerns
- Answer all questions
- If your kids can’t express their feelings in words, let them draw a picture
- Establish a new routine as soon as possible
- Provide ample hugs and affection, especially physical affection
- Praise your child’s positive behaviors
- Keep your child informed by sharing details about upcoming changes – but not enough to create more fear or insecurity
No one wants to have a home fire, no matter how small. House fires can have devastating physical and emotional consequences, and the effects on young kids can be especially difficult to overcome in the aftermath.
The best way to keep your kids safe is to prevent home fires from happening in the first place. Even if it seems like you’re being overly cautious, every precautionary step you take could be the one that saves your child’s life. No precaution is too insignificant when it comes to fire safety.
By teaching your kids about fire safety, formulating and practicing a fire escape plan, following fire prevention practices and preparing your children for the proper actions during a fire, you’re doing everything you can to keep them safe from a home fire.