For nearly a decade, my husband, 9-year-old son, and I have lived on the top floor of a five-story apartment building in Manhattan. However, until I recently chaperoned a field trip with my son's third-grade class to the New York City Fire Museum, I'd never seriously considered what we would do if a fire broke out.
During the trip, we saw many of the most common hazards in a typical home, the kids crawled through a simulated blaze in a mock apartment filled with artificial "smoke," and we watched an eye-opening video on fire prevention. By the time it was over, I felt humbled by the thought of how unprepared my family was. Turns out, I'm not alone. Only about a quarter of households have actually developed and practiced a home-fire escape plan, according to the National Fire Protection Association. And in 2010, roughly 370,000 home fires were reported, resulting in 13,350 injuries and 2,640 deaths.
The guide who led our trip that day, retired Captain Bob Picard, of the Fire Department of New York, showed us how many fire hazards could be eliminated in just one sweep around a home. Think of this story as your own safety tour.
In the Kitchen
Treat your appliances right. Keep them clean and use them according to the manufacturer's instructions. If a toaster or a microwave doesn't work properly, don't use it -- get it fixed or replace it. Make sure you register your appliances as soon as you buy them so that manufacturers can notify you about recalls of faulty products, which are common flame starters. And report your own safety incidents or concerns with appliances or other consumer products to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) at saferproducts.gov.
Never leave while you're cooking. Most kitchen fires start after someone's left the room, says the CPSC. "In less than a minute, a skillet holding cooking oil can go from having inch-high flames to ones that lap across the ceiling," explains Jack Sanderson, a fire investigator at Fire Findings, in Benton Harbor, Michigan.
Keep everything away from the stove. As Captain Picard led us around a kitchen filled with hazards, he explained that there should be no loose items within 3 feet of your stove. This includes pot holders, dish towels, and curtains.
Watch for problems. Appliances like coffeemakers and dishwashers can be dangerous if there are internal water leaks. "That water can create an unintended pathway for the electrical current and cause a fire," explains Sanderson. I was surprised to learn that soapy water (in dishwashers, for example) is far more electrically conductive than ordinary tap water and poses a bigger problem if it leaks onto electrical components. To spot leaks, look for stains (or water) around the appliance; the minerals in the water tend to discolor the surrounding area.
Get a fire extinguisher. But don't use it until you have to. Otherwise you may reduce the pressure of the extinguisher, rendering it useless in an emergency. Study the operating instructions so you'll know what to do if the time comes. And then use it only for small, contained fires. If you have a fire, get out of the house and stay out.