Sounding The Alarm

Recognizing the dangers of house fires -- and what you can do to save lives and property

December 16, 2007|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,sun reporter

With the winter months being the most dangerous -- and deadly -- for fires, homeowners are being urged to take precautions, from checking smoke detectors to snuffing out candles. But the safest move of all, fire officials say, may be to have an emergency plan in place that includes fire drills with the entire family.

With 31 deaths so far, this year has seen more people perish in fires in Baltimore than any year since 1998, a toll that has devastated families and alarmed officials. The city accounts for more than one-third of the state's 86 fire deaths.

A recent fire in Baltimore's Roland Park killed two children, and a Gaithersburg fire last week claimed three family members, including a 5-year-old boy.

Nationally, more than two-thirds of fatalities occur in homes that lack working smoke alarms. December accounts for the most candle-ignited fires.

Most house fires are related to carelessness or neglect in smoking, cooking, home heating and electrical safety, fire officials say. They worry that most families do not have a fire emergency plan.

People have less time to escape a house fire than they think, and typically they think they have a few minutes.

"A smoke alarm only cuts the risk of dying in a fire by half," said Battalion Chief Michael Cox of the Anne Arundel County Fire Department, citing national statistics. "Smoke alarms, they only buy you precious seconds to evacuate a house."

Residents don't realize that flames, heat or thick, black smoke may obscure their path to the door. And it can take less than a minute for flames to engulf a room; seconds for a person to be overcome by smoke or fumes.

That is why fire prevention and safety is stressed. Protecting your family and home, your biggest asset, requires knowing the basics about fire, understanding alarm options and being aware of issues that can make your house vulnerable.

Most fatal house fires occur at hours when people are sleeping.

"Many people believe they will be awakened by the smell of smoke. Nothing could be further from the truth," said Cox.

Smoke, which kills far more people than fire, travels up first and then horizontally. So in case of fire, stay low to the floor, officials warn.

The heat in a house fire can reach more than 1,300 degrees, causing synthetic and petroleum-based furnishings to melt and burn, releasing toxic fumes.

Fire officials talk in terms of a fire load -- combustibles such as furniture that can fuel a fire -- and that's one reason they recommend clearing out clutter and keeping anything that can burn far from heat sources.

"It's a general housekeeping thing," said Battalion Chief Joseph J. Fannon Jr. of the Baltimore County Fire Department.

Fire officials offer these tips:

Keep things away from the furnace, hot water heater and fireplace that can burn. Don't shove stuff in a small closet area if that is where the furnace and flue pipe are.

A rule of thumb is this: If you are hot, so is everything near you, and heat can cause a fire.

If you use a space heater, give it space.

Newer materials in home furnishings have more fire retardants.

Smoke alarms

Controversy is raging over which kind of smoke alarm is better: ionization or photoelectric.

Ionization detects smoke from flames using electrical charges. Photoelectric detects smoke using a beam of light.

Alarms that use ionization are more common.

Massachusetts is poised to become the first state to require the photoelectric kind, which is championed by Boston Deputy Fire Chief Joseph Fleming, who says its sensitivity gets an alert out sooner.

Maryland officials say both kinds of alarms have value.

"Our recommendation is they make a dual alarm, and it is best to have both, quite frankly," said Maryland State Fire Marshal William E. Barnard.

Laws and recommendations vary among jurisdictions, but current codes for new homes in most places, including Baltimore, call for one alarm on each level of a home, including one outside the sleeping areas, and one inside each bedroom.

No matter the type, the most important thing is to have a smoke alarm. Other things homeowners should know:

Install new smoke-alarm batteries at least twice a year, when you change your clocks for daylight saving time.

Some advances are being made in smoke detection, including alarms tied into home security networks, alarms that enable parents to record a wake-up-and-get-out message, and lithium battery-operated alarms that work for a decade before replacement is needed.

Escape plans

Households should craft an evacuation plan -- and use drills so that everyone stays familiar with it.

Parents and adults should assess their ability to reach sleeping children and household members who are disabled.

Older children can understand what to do if parents can't reach them.

"But a 2- or 3-year old just doesn't think like that. Sit down with each child and show them," said Baltimore City Fire Department spokesman Kevin Cartwright.

Practice and demonstrations are in order. Here's how:

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