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Fire Safety Is More than Heeding Smokey the Bear

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As small children, we learn that fire is dangerous and we’re taught to stay away from a long list of obvious fire sources such as fireplaces, fireworks, campfires, candles, lit cigarettes, matches, and more. As adults, we watch horrific videos of huge fires – forest fires, factory explosions, gas leaks that have ignited – but we’re likely to say to ourselves, “This can’t happen to us.”

But it can happen . . . because, too often, fires begin at home.

Statistics say you could have five household fires in your lifetime.

  • The National Fire Protection Association reports that firefighters responded to more than 370,000 home fires in 2011.
  • American households can expect to average a home fire every 15 years – although many of them will be small and easily extinguished.
  • There’s a one in ten chance that someone in your household will suffer injury from a fire.

Some of the causes of household fires trace back to those childhood warnings, proving your parents and grandparents right.

Nearly 60,000 reported fires each year are the result of children playing with fire:

  • Half of household fires started by children stem from lighters and another 19% had matches as their source, altogether accounting for 92% of deaths.
  • 44% of children implicated in home fires were between ages four and six years old.

Even as the number of smokers in the U.S. has declined to one out of five, 90,000 fires in 2011 were attributed to lit cigarettes, cigars and pipes that ignited trash, bedding and upholstery to cause 540 deaths, 1,640 injuries, and $621 million in property damage.

At the top of the list of causes of household fires, however, are appliances such as stoves and space heaters, and inadequate or faulty electrical wiring and appliances. These two sources combined account for more than 200,000 fires each year.

Electricity has become such a necessary part of our lives that we take it for granted: As long as the lights light, the stove cooks, and the electrical outlets work, we pay little attention. And yet, household fires because of insufficient or defective electrical wiring cause an estimated 53,000 fires each year, resulting in more than 500 deaths, 1,400 injuries and $1.4 billion in property damage.

  • Faulty electrical systems are the culprits in more than 140,000 home fires each year, according to the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC).
    • The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), a division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), says that about half of all residential fires involve electrical wiring.
    • More than 30,000 of these fires stem from “arcing faults”; that is, flashes and flames that occur when a strong current jumps a gap in a circuit.
    • The CPSC also reports that electrical outlets cause 5,300 fires annually, resulting in more than 40 deaths and at least 100 injuries.
    • Shockingly, 65% of home fire deaths occurred in homes without working smoke detectors.

U.S.  Fire Administration research indicates that “fixed wiring,” such as faulty electrical outlets and old wiring, is the cause of most electrical distribution fires. Other culprits are extension cords, appliance cords, switches, plugs, light fixtures, and light bulbs. Even if these elements are not faulty, fires can result from overloading circuits and running cords under rugs and in high traffic areas.

What can homeowners and their families do to prevent electrical fires? One way is to use qualified, certified electricians and make sure that wiring meets National Electrical Code standards. 

Here are some electrical fire precaution tips from the USFA and other fire safety experts:

  • Do not try to repair worn or old wiring yourself. Call an electrician if you have problems with blown fuses or tripped circuit breakers, warm wall outlets or switches, flickering lights, or cracked or broken wall outlets. If touching an electrical appliance causes a tingling feeling, or if you smell a rubbery odor, get qualified help immediately.
  • Install smoke detectors on every level of your home, at a minimum in or just outside the kitchen and bedrooms. Check smoke detectors monthly and change the batteries twice a year. One way to remember is to change smoke alarm batteries in the spring, when clocks “spring forward” for daylight savings time, and again in the fall, when we set clocks back to standard time.
  • Ask your electrician about installing AFCI protection devices, which recognize dangerous conditions that are not detected by standard breakers. This may be especially important in older homes.
  • Use extension cords only temporarily, making sure not to put them where they can be pinched by furniture. Both small and major appliances should be plugged directly into a wall outlet, not into an extension cord.
  • Use surge protectors that have internal overload protection, and light bulbs that match the recommended wattage on the lamp or fixture.

Between 2007 and 2012, the CPSC recalled 15 million appliance units because of defects that could cause a fire.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, using estimates from 2006 through 2008, reports that major appliances caused more than 150,000 household fires each year during that period, resulting in 150 deaths, 3,670 injuries, and $547 million in property damage. Human error plays a role, but CPSC’s in-depth analysis of federal fire data found that human mistakes caused only about half of appliance fires, and the other half were due to problems with the appliances themselves., the independent product-testing organization that consumers have come to trust for objective analyses, says that most incidents in the national database on fires were attributed to ranges (stoves and ovens), clothes dryers, air conditioners, refrigerators, and dishwashers.

  • Half of the CPSC’s 15 million appliance recalls in the past five years have been dishwashers. In March 2009, 1.6 million Maytag refrigerators were recalled because of an electrical failure in the component that turns on the compressor.
  • Battery-operated appliances also can be dangerous fire sources, even commonplace battery-operated electronics such as laptops, cellphones and iPods.  Lithium batteries in electronics degrade over the years, posing fire risks.

Fortunately for consumers, manufacturers are working on design improvements and tracking methods that will improve fire safety.  These include a recent (March 2013) voluntary standard  that  keeps dryer fires contained inside the tumbler or base of the chassis; technology that monitors stovetop temperatures to detect fires before they start; devices that prevent the electromagnetic interference that keeps mobile digital devices from inadvertently turning appliances on; and stamping codes onto non-destructible components of appliances to improve tracking capability.

In the meantime, here are some tips from to help you protect yourself and your family from appliance fires:

  • Take the time to register your new appliances. Many people don’t bother, but only if you are registered can you be notified if your product is recalled. Appliances come with a registration card, but in many cases you can also register online.
  • Check for recalls at and read consumer product reviews at
  • Install fire prevention equipment, such as smoke alarms with both photoelectric and ionization sensors.
  • Check your home’s wiring to make sure it can handle the demands of modern appliances. Often, a home fire is caused by faulty or old wiring rather than an appliance defect.
  • Be a safe cook. Maintain a kids-free zone in the kitchen, don’t leave the stove unattended, unplug small appliances when they are not in use, and clean out grease buildup from range hoods.
  • Keep dryer vents clear. You should clean you dryer’s lint screen every time you use your dryer. Make sure your dryer is properly vented, using rigid metal dryer ducts rather than foil or plastic ducts.
  • Protect yourself and your electronics by replacing batteries frequently and making sure that chargers are compatible with your mobile devices.

With so many possible sources of household fire around you, you should make sure you know what to do if a fire starts.  Being prepared and taking quick action can save your life – and the lives of your family members. 

  • Do not use water on a fire unless you know the type of fuel feeding the fire. Water conducts electricity, which could spread the fire. Water also will carry burning petroleum products (oil and gas) into new areas to ignite.
  • Kitchen fires can be deadly if you don’t act quickly. If there is a fire in the stove or microwave, shut the door to suffocate the flames and turn the device off. If you have a stovetop fire, clamp a lid to smother the flames and turn off the stove. For a grease fire, cover the pan with a lid if possible; otherwise, throw baking soda or salt on the fire – but never water or flour, which could explode.
  • You should have at least one fire extinguisher in your home that is easily accessible – especially to the kitchen. Learn how to use it: (1) Pull the pin to break the tamper seal; (2) Aim low and point the extinguisher nozzle at the base of the fire; (3) Squeeze the handle to release the extinguishing agent; and (4) Sweep from side to side until the fire is out.
  • If you cannot contain a fire or put it out with a fire extinguisher in five seconds, leave the building immediately, shut all the doors to slow the fire’s spread, and call 911. 

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