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.
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.
Don't overload power strips and extension cords. When Captain Picard mentioned the dangers of frayed wiring, I immediately pictured the tangle of plugs I had jammed into one power strip in my living room. At last count it was supplying juice to a DVR, a DVD player, a broadband modem, a TV, a cordless phone, and an Xbox. (Now I only plug in what we need.) But our worst offender has to be the old cord from an antique brass standing lamp I bought at a flea market, which I've since gotten rewired.
Hide matches and lighters. According to the National Fire Protection Association, firefighters responded to nearly 45,000 blazes in 2010 caused by someone playing with fire, and most of them were started by kids. Keep matches and lighters out of reach and make sure that all cigarette lighters are child-resistant.
Understand wattage. Most appliances are rated for wattage, and some require high-wattage extension cords. Extension cords can alter the power supply, so don't use them if you don't have to—and never attach them to high-wattage appliances like electric space heaters, says Sanderson.
Get the safest equipment. When you're buying items like extension cords, night-lights, and power strips, look for ones that have been tested to meet federal safety standards. (UL is the best known testing company.)
Place cords properly. Don't run them under carpets or rugs, or around doorways. When cords are subjected to excessive force from doors opening and closing or from people walking over them, they can become damaged and can overheat, possibly starting a fire.
Have chimneys and vents checked and cleaned once a year. An inspector will look for creosote, a flammable, oily buildup in chimney walls and wood- and pellet-stove vents, as well as other hidden dangers, such as squirrel nests.
Check your cooling systems. An air-conditioning unit should be plugged directly into an outlet, not an extension cord or a power strip, says Sanderson. To make sure it's not overheating, check the outlet and the cord after it's been running for an hour or so. If either feels excessively hot, unplug the unit and contact the manufacturer; you can also report it to the CPSC.
Be careful with candles. If you use them, make sure they're in sturdy, noncombustible containers and never leave them unattended, within a child's reach, or near any furniture that could easily catch on fire, such as upholstered sofas or chairs (which are far more likely to light than wooden furniture and spread the fire more quickly).
Have your furnace and water heater inspected annually. It's critical to make sure all fuel-burning appliances are wired and operating properly.
Be vigilant about combustible liquids. These include oil-based paints, paint thinners, and home heating oil. Keep them in a cool, well-ventilated area.
Your first step: Create an escape plan based on your home's layout. (Go to sparky.org, a kid-friendly fire-safety site, to download a blank template.) Identify two ways out of every room, if possible. Then go over the plan with children ages 5 and older. Don't bother showing the map to younger kids. They'll understand it better by practicing, so walk around your home and show your children where the exits are and how they'll get out, suggests Kate Carr, president and CEO of Safe Kids Worldwide. Home drills can be scary for small kids, so it's important to reassure them, says Carr. "Tell your child that it's your job to protect her. You can say something like, 'We don't expect to have a fire, but if it happens, this is what we'll do to be safe.'"
Next, teach your kids to "get low and go." Have them practice escaping from each room by crouching down very low and crawling along the perimeter of the room to an exit. Make sure your child understands that this technique is different from "stop, drop, and roll," which is what kids should do only if their clothing catches fire. (Carr explains that during at-home drills, many children have tried to stop, drop, and roll their way out of rooms.) Coach your child to feel a closed door with the back of his hand before he opens it; if it's hot, he should quickly head to the second way out if there's one available.
Do your drill a couple of times each year, using a different exit each time. If you have a fire escape, make sure that it's clear. If you live in a home with a second or higher level and you don't already have a Ul-certified collapsible rescue ladder, consider getting one to stow near an exit window. Children should be a rung above you and stay between your body and the ladder as they climb down, so you can catch them in case they slip. The Fire Department of New York recommends attaching the ladder at least once soon after you get it, so that you know it works and you're familiar with it in an emergency.
Finally, work out which parent will oversee which child's removal. "This should reduce any confusion that can cost precious seconds," says Carr. Establish your family meeting spot outside the home so that you can quickly do a head count.
Protect your family from home fires and carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning with these guidelines.
To protect children from burns, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) requires pajamas size 9 months through size 14 to meet federal flammability standards. The fabric and garments must pass certain tests or be tight-fitting; if they're tight-fitting, they haven't been treated with flame retardants. (Many parents prefer to avoid the chemicals because research has linked exposure to some with health hazards. In the 1970s, many kinds of retardants were banned from being used in kids' pajamas; the CPSC has said the chemicals used today are safe.) You'll know your child's sleepwear is tight-fitting enough if the label reads: "For child's safety, garment should fit snugly. This garment is not flame resistant. Loose-fitting garment is more likely to catch fire." Loose-fitting clothing made of cotton or cotton blends should never be worn as sleepwear because it can catch fire easily.
Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Parents magazine.