Every 80 seconds, a fire department responds to a home fire, and these emergencies aren't just frightening -- they can be fatal. Nearly 500 kids die in house fires each year, more than 1,600 are injured, and children under 5 are most vulnerable, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). While many fires are caused by cigarettes, space heaters, candles, or kids playing with matches, others are caused by hidden electrical problems.
The scary truth is that you're probably unprepared for a fire. Only one family in four has developed and practiced a fire evacuation plan. According to a survey by Liberty Mutual and the International Association of Fire Fighters, just 30 percent of people know that they should evacuate their home before calling the fire department, and 84 percent of parents don't talk about fire safety with their kids.
The good news is that there are smart ways both to avoid a fire in your home and to act quickly if a blaze does break out. "Parents don't talk about fire with their kids because they're worried about scaring them, but avoiding the subject can make fire seem even more frightening to children," says actress Marcia Gay Harden, a mother of three whose brother's wife and two children died in a fire started by a candle. When speaking to your children, you don't have to focus on the devastation that could occur if your house catches on fire, adds Heidi Taylor, a fire-safety expert with the American Red Cross, in Washington, D.C. Just be positive and say, "This is what we will do to be safe." To protect your family from a deadly fire, follow this three-step plan.
Here's the most important rule: Keep anything that could catch fire at least three feet away from things that get hot. That buffer zone applies to the kitchen stove (no dish towels on the oven handle), the fireplace (newspapers and kindling can ignite from a stray spark), and even small appliances like curling irons and lamps, which can overheat adjacent towels or curtains. Space heaters are responsible for a significant number of home fire deaths, so make sure they're at least three feet from beds, clothing, and upholstered furniture -- and never use them while you're sleeping.
A particular danger around the holidays, candles cause more than 15,000 home fires each year. Always blow them out before you leave a room. "We think of candles as benign and beautiful, but there are so many ways they can start a fire," says Harden. "Pets and kids can knock them over, and even a breeze from a door opening could blow a curtain into the flame."
Be very careful in the kitchen, where most home fires start. When you're cooking, insist that your kids stay three feet away from the stove, or keep them out of the kitchen altogether. Never leave cooking food unattended on the stove or under the broiler. "If you're making something that requires your full attention, keep your kids busy with a project so you won't be interrupted," says Judy Comoletti, manager of the NFPA's public education division.
Smoke detectors increase your odds of surviving a house fire -- in fact, 65 percent of fire deaths occur in homes with no working smoke alarms. You should have at least one on every level of your home, including the basement. NFPA codes recommend that you install an alarm outside each sleeping area as well as inside every bedroom (so an alarm will sound more quickly if the fire starts in a bedroom with the door closed). Having that extra alarm is what saved the life of 9-year-old Dante Schipman, of Fort Collins, Colorado, when the heat lamp from his snake aquarium fell onto his bed in the middle of the night.
The safest strategy is to buy interconnected alarms. "If there's a fire in your basement, the alarms in your bedrooms will go off too," says Comoletti. You can buy smoke detectors that use wireless technology if you're unable to hardwire the alarms into your home's electrical system. They're more expensive, but it's easy to install them yourself.
There are two types of smoke alarms: ionization alarms, which are generally more responsive in detecting flaming fires, and photoelectric alarms, which may provide an earlier alert for smoldering fires. For the best protection, buy some of each kind or use dual-sensor alarms that combine both technologies. If you get frustrated because your alarms go off every time you burn toast, get ones with a hush button so you can silence them quickly. All alarms need to be replaced every 10 years.
In fact, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends buying smoke alarms containing lithium batteries, which are guaranteed to last for 10 years. If you use regular alarms, replace the batteries annually. Even units that are hardwired into your home's wiring need a fresh backup battery every year. (Some organizations advocate changing batteries when you change your clock for daylight saving, but the NFPA says you don't need to change them twice a year unless the low-battery beep on an alarm sounds.) No matter what type of alarms you have, check them once a month by pressing the test button. Amazingly, only 15 percent of families do this, according to the CDC. Testing your alarms is an easy way to get your kids involved. They'll learn to recognize the sound, and you can talk about what they should do when they hear it.
Once a smoke alarm sounds, you'll only have about three minutes to escape a flaming fire, according to new research by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. "Every family member needs to know and practice a fire escape plan so you can act fast in an emergency," says Taylor. "Fire spreads quickly, and the smoke can get really thick." Most fire deaths are caused by smoke inhalation rather than burns.
Rehearse your plan at least twice a year, once in daylight and once at night (people are much more likely to die from nighttime fires). You should find two possible ways out of each room and decide how you'll get your children out safely. If you have second- or third-story bedrooms, consider buying fire-escape ladders. But don't just buy one and put it under the bed. "Make sure that the ladder fits the window, and use it only if all other ways out are blocked," says Comoletti.
Show your children how to close doors behind them to help slow the spread of the fire, and tell them that they should never open a door that feels hot. Instead, go out through a window or stay put and wait for help. In case you have to escape through smoke, teach kids to "get low and go under the smoke," because air closer to the ground will be less smoky. Designate a family meeting place outside the house, such as a neighbor's yard, and emphasize that once you're out, you never go back inside for any reason. Call 911 or the fire department from a nearby house or from your cell phone only after you're safely outside. If someone is trapped in the house, tell the emergency dispatcher.
Experts say it's also important to teach children that firefighters are their friends. Kids often run or hide from firemen during an actual fire because they look frightening with their full protective gear, including masks and axes. Visit a local fire station so your children can see what the equipment looks like and learn why it's used.
"People think that fires happen to other people," says Marlene Petro, who is now the executive director of the local American Red Cross chapter that helped her family after a fire in their home. But the truth is that more families are affected by fires than all other disasters combined. It can happen to you, so be ready.
If you live in an apartment, know the building's evacuation plan, which is supposed to be posted in a public area. The manager should hold a fire drill at least twice a year; if not, ask for one. If there are security bars on your windows, be sure you can open them from the inside. Never use an elevator in a fire; show your kids how to find the stairs and exits. Depending on the location and extent of a fire, your best bet may be to stay in your apartment and wait for firefighters. For example, if the stairwells are filled with smoke and there's no outdoor fire escape, or you can't get through the fire to your exit, close all the doors behind you and stay in a room with windows. Wave a light-colored cloth or a flashlight to help firefighters find you.
People make dangerous mistakes when they're caught off guard by a fire. It's crucial to know what to do when:
A pan of oil on the stove catches fire.Do: Slide a lid over the pan to smother the fire.Don't: Put water or flour on a grease fire; this can create an explosive flare-up.
A candle ignites your child's clothing or hair.Do: Tell her to stop where she is, drop to the ground, and roll until the flames are out. Rinse the burn with cool water and get medical help right away.Don't: Leave her alone to get an extinguisher or water.
An overloaded electrical outlet catches fire.Do: Get everyone out of the house and call 911. Only use a fire extinguisher if it's rated Class C for electrical fires or has a multipurpose ABC rating.Don't: Use another class of fire extinguisher or water, which can cause electrocution.
"We Lost Everything"
A kitchen fire destroyed Danielle McManus's home in Suitland, Maryland, just two months after she'd moved in with her 6-year-old son, Eric, and her fiance, Curtis Rice. Eric was at his grandmother's when McManus came home from work and started making fried chicken for dinner. She decided to take a quick trip to the grocery store, but she got distracted and left one of the stove burners on. When she came home, her street was full of smoke and firefighters had just put out the flames. "Eric was so upset. He really liked the house and was afraid we'd have to move again," says McManus. The Red Cross helped with lodging and necessities until the family's insurance kicked in and they could start rebuilding.
"The Kids Were Prepared"
When the smoke detectors sounded at the Bouchard house, in Milford, New Hampshire, Kiersten, 7, and Lauryn, 16, were home alone. At the sound of the alarm, they ran across the street barefoot in the snow to call 911 from a neighbor's house; they were forced to leave their cat behind when she wouldn't come. "They didn't even stop to put on their shoes," says Captain Jason Smedick, of the Milford Fire Department, who teaches the fire-safety program at the girls' school. Firefighters rescued the cat and put out the basement fire, which was probably caused by a broken pilot light on the hot-water heater that ignited boxes of clothing and photos.
Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Parents magazine.