Protecting Your Home From Fire

Tragedy struck the Bronx Wednesday night, as a house fire in a neighborhood near Yankee Stadium claimed the lives of eight children and one adult. The blaze, the deadliest fire in New York City since 9/11, started in the cord attached to a space heater on the ground floor of a building without fire escapes--a place where there were smoke detectors, but no batteries in them to sound the alarm. The nine dead, immigrants from Mali, join a sad roll call of Americans felled by fire: in 2005, 1,602,000 fires killed 3,675 civilians and 87 firefighters, according to the National Fire Protection Association. What can be done to help protect people from the flames?  Patrick Morrison, health and safety director of the International Association of Fire
Fighters (and a former Fairfax County, Va., firefighter himself), talked with NEWSWEEK's Karen Springen about how best to safeguard your home. Excerpts: 

NEWSWEEK: How big of a danger are space heaters?
Patrick Morrison: Space heaters are a seasonal thing. [Be careful of] things that can brush up against them, like a curtain. And they can tip over. Most space heaters have fairly sensitive turnoff switches when they do turn over. But if you overload any kind of circuit, you can have a fire. Having no circuit breaker on the space heater is a problem.

Is it OK to buy a space heater?
We're not saying don't buy a space heater. We're saying if you're going to hook it up to an outlet, make sure you don't have three or four appliances already hooked up to that circuit. That circuit is already hotter than it needs to be. If you do hook it in, use a circuit breaker-type extension cord, something that hopefully would shut off if it overheats. Not just a circuit breaker in your electrical panel, but in your extension cord.

Should you put a space heater on a carpet?
You shouldn't. If it did tip over, you want to try to make sure it's not by anything that could assist in causing a fire.

Should you put it on a rubber mat?
Some of those rubbers are made from a petroleum product. A metal mat would be best.

What other lessons can we learn from the Bronx fire?
Smoke alarms without batteries! Another huge, huge issue in that fire is they tried to fight the fire first before calling 911. You don't want that to be done. A lot of people panic. They did not have an exit plan. They didn't practice one. They didn't know what they would do in a situation like that. It's the typical "This fire is never going to happen to me. It's going to happen to somebody else."

What are some of the biggest fire hazards these days?
We have lots of fires in the kitchen. People leave things on the stove unattended, walk away and forget about them. You usually have an open flame. You have a tendency to put something on and leave….Don't leave anything unattended on the stove. If you aren't cooking, make sure all those handles are turned away. And candles. People are leaving candles unattended, with pets in the house.

What about how important it is to leave doors closed?
[In the Bronx fire], they left, and left the door open. That just adds fuel to the fire. What you need for a fire is heat, you need oxygen, and you need the fuel, whatever's burning. They just applied lots and lots of oxygen by leaving the door open. If you have a fire in an apartment or in a room, you want to get out of that room immediately. When you do get out of that room, close that door. You're at least setting up a barrier. It's just going to take more time to burn through that door. That's going to allow the firefighters to get there. It's going to allow for other occupants to have more time. You're going to give them a better survival chance.

What other steps can families take?
Have a working fire extinguisher. It should be placed somewhere where it's mounted. You want to remember where you left it last. You might move it when you're painting or something, and when you need your fire extinguisher, you don't know where it is.

Do you need sprinklers, too?
We fully endorse new home construction with sprinkler systems. The smoke detector gives you  notification that you have a fire. It's going to give you a prewarning. You might have enough time to get up and grab your cell phone and call 911 outside. The biggest tragedy is someone comes out and goes back in looking for their pets. They just don't realize how toxic the smoke is and how you cannot tolerate that environment for very long. There are a couple things on the pet issue. Unfortunately, you have to save yourself first. You cannot search for your house pet. It's one of the things we see over and over again.

What about keeping furniture and other objects away from radiators and other heat sources?
You need distance. If you're going to have a space heater, we would want three feet around that. We're all guilty. We store combustibles [including clothes] right next to electrical panels. You have your boxes of clothes in cardboard boxes, and you're putting them in the basement, right next to your furnace that has a flame. Give it clearance.

What about electrical outlets?
You do not want to overload any circuit in your house. You want to make sure you have a circuit breaker on appliances.

Clothes dryers can also be a problem, right?
The dryers can be a risk because a lot of people don't clean the lint in the dryers. We have all that lint that builds up, causing it to overheat, causing it to get hotter than the manufacturer recommends. That vent system, that air-drying system that's pumping air in and out, is clogged. Sometimes with a strong buildup, lint that hasn't been cleaned out in months and even years, you wind up with the chance of having a fire. In the bottom of the vent, you have a blowout area, where you're venting that air that comes out through the system. That has a tendency to collect lint also. You want to get those checked periodically. Make sure it's open and clear.

Besides smoke alarms, what else should people buy?
If you have an appliance, if you have a gas or an oil-type heating system, you need a CO detector. It costs less than $20. It's a detector that picks up the poisonous gas that comes from incomplete combustion. If you're using gas, your furnace, your gas water heater, a heater that uses oil as its fuel source, there's incomplete combustion there. It's poisoning, it's odorless. You cannot detect it by smell, but it's deadly if you have a backup into your house. You can just use one. Have maybe one on each floor. You just put it on the wall. That's going to detect the CO in the air. It would beep, just like a smoke detector. Every home should have a smoke detector. You don't need a CO if you use electrical appliances, if your whole house is heated with electricity. You only need it for our gas appliances.

What others steps would you like Americans to take?
The No. 1 thing that we are finding is that parents are not talking to their kids about home safety and fire emergencies and fire exits. They're too busy. They think a fire is going to happen to someone else. That complacency is what winds up killing. Discuss home safety, how are we going to escape. Check all your windows to make sure they open properly. Make sure the windows can open. Make sure you have two ways out.  Replace those smoke-detector batteries. If your smoke detector is older than 10 years old, we recommend replacing the whole smoke detector, not just the batteries. You should sit down and talk to your kids.

Should you discuss the old advice to "stop, drop and roll"?
Yes. We want to talk about playing with matches, dialing 911, meeting at a location outside the house, not going in to save your pets or your goldfish or whatever. We want to tell them to stay low.

And as a result, we'll see fewer of these disasters?
Yes. [And remember to] exit in a timely way and tell us, "there's a fire in there, everyone's out of the house." We'll risk everything to save someone. We don't want to risk a lot when there's no life to save….We need that information, that everyone's out of the house, all the kids are out of the house, all that information is vitally important for us. Do the preplanning and training. It makes your lives safer, and helps us do our job.