House Fires

We all have moments during which we lie awake at night and worry about nightmare situations involving ourselves or our families. The nature of these situations differs from person to person but an extremely common worry for many is the outbreak of a fire in our home. Every now and then, the news on the television brings us images of parents battling to save their young children from a house fire and being caught up in such an event is almost too terrifying to contemplate.

Despite the horrific consequences of house fires, as well as the relative ease with which they can occur during both the day and night, surprisingly few of us bother to make regular safety checks around the house or plan definitive exit strategies. Safety checks only take a few minutes and taking a small amount of time out of your day to acknowledge the real risk of fire could save your life and the lives of your loved ones.

Preparation

As with many areas of life, preparation is the key to a positive outcome. Planning in advance and discussing the risk of fire with all the members of your family can reduce the likelihood of a fire occurring in the first place and also increase your chances of survival if one does break out.

Avoiding house fires

House fires can have numerous causes and many of these causes are preventable. Using common sense is extremely important but there are several less obvious tips which should be followed at all times.

The most obvious advice is to keep combustibles away from heat sources. Combustibles include:

  • Clothing
  • Furniture
  • Curtains, drapes, and tablecloths
  • Flammable liquids (always keep these out of the reach of children)

Heat sources include:

  • Cookers
  • Boilers
  • Heaters
  • Faulty electrical wiring

Furthermore, you should never leave small children unattended. They are unlikely to realise the consequence of their actions and can start a raging fire if left alone even for a short while. If you do need to leave a young child unattended, make sure you leave them in a safe and secure place. For example, you should leave a toddler in a play pen with some toys to provide a safe distraction.

Never leave candles unattended when they are lit. The popularity of scented candles has been steadily increasing during the past few years and many people believe that it is safe to leave them unattended. However, candles can cause fires which can spread out of control very quickly. Always burn candles in places where they are not likely to be knocked over and keep them far away from flammable material. Burning candles in a bedroom, which is filled with flammable material including curtains, cushions, and bedding, is a risky idea and should be avoided at all times if possible.

Smoking anywhere in the house is potentially dangerous but it may not be practical to go outside every time a smoker needs a cigarette. The golden rule though is that you should never smoke whilst in bed, particularly if you have been drinking alcohol. Before putting ash and cigarette remnants in the dustbin, make sure they are completely extinguished and there is no residual heat. Always be sensible when smoking because it is all too easy to leave a lit cigarette unattended for a few minutes and then forget about it.

Smokers should also leave lighters and matches out of the reach of children. It is not enough to shove them in a drawer because kids are naturally curious and may well find them. Keep them at the top of a high cupboard and make sure the cupboard is one which cannot be accessed by children who enjoy climbing on top of kitchen work units!

You should make sure that your cooker is in good working condition and always positioned away from combustible material, such as the kitchen curtains. The same applies to your boiler. With regards to the boiler, it is a good idea to use a fireplace screen, which prevents dangerous sparks from escaping and setting fire to nearby combustible material. During the winter months, it can be tempting to use portable heaters which emit heat to the immediate environment. These heaters will warm you up very quickly but make sure you do not sit too close to them and never point them in the direction of flammable material. With regards to general heating systems, make sure all your equipment is checked at least once a year.

When you are cooking over a naked flame, make sure that you are not wearing loose clothing. Long sleeves can easily catch alight if you are not careful. In addition, keep all dish cloths and tea towels away from kitchen units which are next to the stove, since they can easily catch alight. Never leave the stove unattended whilst you are cooking. Even if you are just boiling a pan of pasta, do not leave the room. Food or boiling water which spills over the edge of a pan can easily cause a large house fire.

It may sound obvious to advise against cooking anything whilst under the influence of alcohol or drugs but many people attempt such a task. Even if you are just tired or not feeling well, do not be tempted to cook. Momentary lapses in concentration can cause disastrous situations to occur.

If kitchen appliances break, always replace them with new ones which have passed vigorous safety checks. Many people try to fix appliances such as microwaves, toasters, and kettles in an attempt to save a few pounds. However, this is extremely dangerous and the appliances can become instant fire risks.

If a fuse blows in your home, do not ignore the problem. Find the cause of the problem and sort it out as soon as possible. Make sure that electrical cables do not run underneath rugs or are hooked over nails and try never to use extension cords. Electrical items should always be kept well-ventilated because, if they become overheated, they can cause house fires. This can be a particular problem with televisions and laptops. Make sure that televisions have space around them so that air can ventilate properly and never leave laptops on a sofa or a bed because they could become a fire hazard if overheating occurs.

With regards to rubbish and general waste, you should never let it accumulate. If you do need to store rubbish for a short period of time, make sure you choose a sensible storage location. Never store rubbish near a boiler or a cooker. You should try to keep your entire kitchen clean and tidy. For example, do not let grease accumulate on your cooker or in your oven. The rule of tidiness does not only apply to areas located within the house. Keep your garden and external areas clean as well. Never allow lawn clippings or garden refuse to accumulate near a building. Lawn clippings which start to ferment can produce heat and catch alight.

Exit strategies

If the worst scenario happens and you do have a fire in your home it is important to know how to get out quickly and safely. Draw a floor plan for every floor of your house. Show diagrammatically at least two ways of getting out of every room in the house. After you have completed this floor plan, show it to every member of your family and pin it up around the house in different rooms, in places where you and your family will subconsciously look at it and absorb the information. For example, stick a copy of the plan on the fridge, above the television, and next to the posters on the walls of the kids’ bedrooms. You can take these plans down after a few weeks because you and your family should have mentally absorbed the information and visualised the escape routes several times.

It is important that you also practise escaping from the house. You may think that it will be easy to escape in theory, but in the middle of a raging house fire, rooms become far less familiar and panic can set in very quickly. Try testing the routes in broad daylight first. Once you have become familiar with them, try a practice drill at night. Rooms look very different in the dark and this experience could prove invaluable. All of the exit routes should be kept clear of clutter at all times.

Make sure children know the importance of learning the escape routes and ensure that they are knowledgeable about general fire safety. Young children unsurprisingly panic when fire breaks out and most will automatically retreat to a place which they perceive to be safe. These places, unfortunately, include the area under the bed or the bottom of a wardrobe. It is important that you repeatedly emphasise the importance of trying to escape from fire and the dangers of hiding.

The floor plan should also include a large red dot, which indicates a safe meeting area outside the house. This should not be located too close to the home but it is essential that you all agree on this area. If a house fire does occur and family members manage to escape but then fail to find each other, further danger can arise with parents rushing back into burning buildings looking for children who have already escaped.

Other tips

  • Always sleep with your bedroom door closed. This will help to hold back both the heat and the smoke and will slow the spread of the flames. It takes approximately ten to fifteen minutes for flames to burn through a door which is made from wood. Family members will therefore be provided with extra time in which to make an escape.
  • Make sure that windows used as an escape route are easy to open and keep window sills clear of any clutter at all times.
  • Make sure that your family knows how to contact the fire service quickly and efficiently. Emergency phone calls to the fire service should be made from a neighbour’s house. The most important thing to do is to focus upon getting out of the burning building. However, if you are trapped with no way out, you may have no alternative but to ring from your own home. Therefore, if you have two telephones in your house, try to situate them on different floors. This way, if the fire is ruling out one room which has a telephone in, there will be an alternative option. Furthermore, sleep with your mobile phone by your bed, so that you can always make an emergency call.
  • In an ideal situation, escape ladders should be kept in every bedroom. However, this may not be practical. You should try to keep a rope in each bedroom, though, and ensure that it is strong enough to support the weight of an adult’s body.

Smoke detectors

A properly functioning smoke detector will alert you to the early stages of a fire and give you as much time as possible to make your escape. Position one detector on each level of your house and make sure you have one in your bedroom. Replace your smoke detector every ten years and make sure you know what kind of batteries it takes. There are numerous different smoke detectors on the market and you should shop around before making your purchase. Think about the following advice whilst researching potential detectors.

  • Make sure you purchase one which uses a combination of ionization sensors and photoelectric sensors. This will ensure that the detector will alert you to vicious, flaming fires, which spread rapidly throughout the home, and slow fires, which smoulder to begin with but then spread just as quickly. Ionization sensors use small amounts of radioactive material to charge the air inside the sensing chamber. The detector uses two electrodes to pass a current through this chamber. If particles of smoke enter this chamber, the flow of electricity will be interrupted and this will set off the alarm. It is particularly effective in detecting vicious house fires. Conversely, the photoelectric sensors emit a light into the sensing chamber, which can be detected by a sensor. When particles of smoke enter the chamber, the sensor will detect them and cause the alarm to sound. This type of sensor is particularly effective for picking up on signs of smouldering fires, for example ones which result from abandoned cigarettes on bedding or sofas.
  • Make sure the smoke detector has a test button which is easy to use. This test button should make sure that the sensors and the alarm mechanisms are working properly. It really is worth testing your smoke alarm at least once every couple of weeks, just to make sure it is still working efficiently. It takes just one second to do this but it could save your life.
  • Ensure that the smoke detector has a cover which can be easily removed. Make sure you clean the inside of the detector on a regular basis. If dust accumulates in the detector, the sensors can become clogged up and may fail to detect the signs of a fire. Many smoke detectors will allow you to use a vacuum cleaner to remove dust without causing any damage.

Other types of smoke detectors can also be purchased. Those who are deaf or hard of hearing may wish to consider purchasing a wired or wireless smoke alarm system which uses strobe lights and vibrations to cause the individual to awaken. Portable alarm systems for those who cannot hear properly can also be purchased. This means that individuals can transport the alarms with them when they go on holiday or to visit a friend. Smoke detectors which are specifically designed to pick up on fires caused by cigarette smoke can also be purchased. These are able to detect flames from matches and lighters rather than just normal smoke.

Fire Extinguishers

Although it may seem excessive, it really is a good idea to have fire extinguishers handy in your home. There are four different kinds of extinguisher suitable for use around the house:

  • Water: suitable for use on fires which are caused by lit paper, cardboard, textiles, and fabric
  • Foam: suitable for use on fires which are caused by lit paper, cardboard, textiles, and fabric, as well as fires caused by petrol, diesel, or oils
  • Dry Powder: suitable for use on fires which are caused by lit paper, cardboard, textiles, and fabric, as well as fires caused by petrol diesel, or oils. Can also be used on fires involving butane, methane, and propane. Electrical fires can also be treated with these extinguishers.
  • Carbon Dioxide: suitable for use on fires caused by petrol, diesel, or oils, as well as electrical fires

Many people worry about the correct way to use a fire extinguisher. However, using fire extinguishers really is quite simple. With water and powder fire extinguishers, simply aim the jet of the extinguisher at the bottom of the fire and sweep it from one side to another. With other extinguishers used against fires involving solid items, aim the jet at the base of the fire and move it over all the flames. For fires involving liquids, never aim the jet directly at the flames. Instead, aim it at a vertical surface.

You should familiarise yourself with a fire extinguisher as soon as you have made your purchase. Take notice of the following tips:

  • Only use an extinguisher if it is safe to do so and you are not putting yourself at risk
  • Position the extinguisher in a logical position where it can be easily accessed in emergency situations
  • Make sure the extinguisher is not too heavy, so it can be lifted easily
  • Keep extinguishers out of the reach of children
  • Read the instructions thoroughly

How to escape from a burning house

The first rule to remember is to get out as quickly as possible using whatever means you need to, and never return to a burning building, even if family members have not yet made their escape. In a room filled with smoke, it is important to stay low on the ground. Crawl through the room to your escape route. The air will be less toxic at a lower level since smoke automatically rises. If your clothing happens to catch on fire, do not carry on running in the hope it will be extinguished on its own. Instead, drop to the floor and roll.

Before opening a door, check its temperature by touching it quickly. If it feels very hot, try another escape route if there is one available. If there is no other route available, open the door very gradually and be prepared to face flames once you leave the room. If you need to escape from a window on the second floor of a building and do not have an escape ladder or a rope, try tying bedding together and making it into a makeshift rope. Tie it to a secure piece of furniture and lower yourself down through the window as safely as possible. Jumping from a window is extremely dangerous but hanging from a makeshift rope and then jumping a shorter distance may result in no injury or just a sprained ankle.

If you are simply unable to escape from a burning building, try to remain as calm as possible. Put your trust in the fire-fighters, who are extremely good in dangerous situations and will do all they can to rescue you. Keep the door shut in order to keep out the flames for as long as possible and stuff the cracks in order to keep harmful smoke out of the room.

Coping with different types of fire

Electrical fire

This type of fire is most common during the winter months, so you should be particularly aware of the risks over the festive period. If an electrical fire originates at the wall power outlet, either turn off the main switch if possible, or pull the plug by the cord. You can also turn off the power at the fuse box but never take any unnecessary risks. It may be safer just to leave the house rather than trying to deal with the fire yourself. Do not consider pouring water over this type of fire.

Clothing fire

If your clothes catch fire, simply drop to the ground where you are and roll around on the floor until the fire has been completely extinguished.

Wood and paper fire

With wood and paper which has caught fire, use large amounts of water to extinguish the flames. Small objects which have caught fire can be placed in the sink if possible. This will help to contain the spread of the fire.

Cooking fire

If you are cooking with oil and it starts to smoke, turn the temperature of the cooker down as soon as possible. However, if a fire does break out whilst you are cooking, smother the pan with a lid. Never consider throwing water over this kind of fire. It can be tempting to throw anything which is handy onto the flames but this can result in explosions or it may simply exacerbate the severity of the flames.

Oven fire

Fires which originate in the oven can be dealt with by completely closing the oven door and turning off the heat. This will, at least partially, smother the flames.

Conclusion

Preparing for the possibility of a house fire takes a relatively short amount of time. However, it is worth taking this time out of your day since it can save your life and the lives of your family members. It is not good enough to think that you have enough common sense to cope with escaping from a burning building. In a terrifying situation, common sense unfortunately does not always prevail. However, if you are familiar with what to do in a house fire, you will hopefully be able to overcome your feelings of panic and your chances of survival will drastically increase.