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Winter Fire Safety – Is Your Home Safe Enough?

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Winter Fire Safety – Is Your Home Safe Enough?

When the temperature drops, fire danger increases around our homes. We pull out our old electric blankets, dust off long-dormant portable heaters and start using the fireplace again. Numerous factors can potentially add to the risk of an accidental house fire in winter, so you need to understand the hazards.

According to Fire and Rescue NSW, 43% of all fire fatalities occur during the winter months, with almost half starting in the kitchen1 . And the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (VIC) reported that in the month of June 2015 alone, preventable house fires caused $5 million worth of damage in Victoria2 .

In almost all cases, ‘accidental’ house fires are completely preventable, just by taking a little bit of extra care and being more aware of the possible dangers. Here are a few essential tips to help improve fire safety at your place this winter:

Smoke alarms

Smoke alarms are crucial when it comes to fire safety at home. Deep down, we all know this, but we often forget how important they are and get a bit slack when it comes to testing them, changing batteries and ensuring we have a sufficient number installed in the house. However, without a working smoke alarm, you are four times more likely to die in a house fire3 .

Smoke alarms are cheap and easy to install. Test them once a month (usually it’s a simple matter of pressing the ‘’test’ button) and change the batteries once a year. Mark a date on your calendar to help you remember. In deciding how many smoke alarms you need and where to place them, keep in mind that State and local authorities will have specific standards and requirements that must be met, especially when it comes to renovations or new buildings. Always check to see what’s legally required for smoke alarm installation.

If a smoke alarm goes off while you’re cooking, this is a good thing – it means your alarm is working. If it happens too often, you should think about investing in some sort of kitchen vent to cut down on smoke.

If a smoke alarm goes off while you’re cooking, this is a good thing – it means your alarm is working. If it happens too often, you should think about investing in some sort of kitchen vent to cut down on smoke. Reducing your heat levels slightly, using less oil while cooking and covering your pots and frying pans will help, too.

If you temporarily disconnect the battery from the smoke alarm to stop the noise, make sure you reconnect and reinstall it when you’ve finished with the stove. Forgetting to do this can cost lives. It’s safer and more practical to change your cooking habits rather than getting into the bad habit of disconnecting a smoke alarm.

Kitchen fires are fairly common (for example, in South Australia in 2012, 4 out of 5 winter home fires started in the kitchen ). To reduce your risk, don’t get distracted and leave cooking unattended, and keep all those oven mitts and tea towels away from your cooking surfaces.

Like everything else in the house, smoke alarms can accumulate dust, so give them a vacuum (with the appropriate attachment) now and then.

Extinguishers and fire blankets

Every home should have a fire extinguisher and fire blanket near the kitchen exit to prevent the spread of any cooking fires. Extinguishers are also a good idea around your BBQ area. Fire extinguisher placement will depend on the size and configuration of your home and the type and location of your electric and gas appliances. Your local Fire Service can offer advice on how many extinguishers you need and where to put them.

For a small kitchen grease fire, a fire blanket can be incredibly useful (and less messy than an extinguisher). It also works well if someone’s clothing catches fire. Always keep one within convenient reach of your cooking area.

Many people have never had the experience of actually picking up a fire extinguisher and using it. If you fall into this category, make sure you know what to do. There are different types of extinguishers, so make sure you’re using the right sort. For example, you should never use a water extinguisher on an electrical equipment fire.

A handy acronym for remembering how to properly use an extinguisher is P.A.S.S:

Pull the extinguisher pin (it’s there to prevent accidental operation of the handle). Then test the extinguisher immediately by aiming a short burst away from yourself (and others).

Aim the extinguisher outlet or nozzle at the base of the fire while standing a safe distance away.

Squeeze the handle on the extinguisher to release the extinguishing agent.

Sweep the extinguisher left to right, aiming at the fire’s base.

Make sure everyone in your home knows where each fire extinguisher is located and how to use it. While you’re trying to put the fire out, a second person (if available) can be ringing the fire department. Only use an extinguisher when it’s safe to do so. If the fire seems too big or you have safety concerns, get yourself and everyone out5 .

For a small kitchen grease fire, a fire blanket can be incredibly useful (and less messy than an extinguisher). It also works well if someone’s clothing catches fire. Always keep one within convenient reach of your cooking area.

Winter heaters

The most common causes of house fires in Australia are flammable items being left too close to heaters (especially bedding, curtains and drying clothing), candles, unattended cooking, open fires, careless smoking, clothes dryers and electric blankets6.

The lint that accumulates in your clothes dryer filter is highly flammable and can cause the dryer to overheat and catch fire. Always clean the lint filter after each load, and wait until the dryer has cooled down completely before removing the clothes. Inspect your dryer regularly7 .

When it comes to the placement of a heater in your home, use the easy-to-remember ‘metre from the heater’ rule, which means exactly what it says – don’t have anything closer than a metre from your heating appliance.

Old, dusty heaters that have been locked away for months pose a real risk if they’re not cleaned properly before use. If there’s enough of it, all that accumulated dust can be a flammable hazard and may ignite once the heater warms up. No matter what type of heater you have, it can build up a residue of dust so make sure you give it a good clean – and continue to dust it regularly (when it’s turned off and disconnected) throughout the winter months of maximum use. If your home has a ducted heated system, get a professional to come and clean it for you.

When it comes to the placement of a heater in your home, use the easy-to-remember ‘metre from the heater’ rule, which means exactly what it says – don’t have anything closer than a metre from your heating appliance. If you’re using a heater to dry clothing, never put items directly on the surface of the heater; place a drying rack at least a metre away. Don’t leave clothes unattended while drying them next to a heater.

Gas heaters should have a regular maintenance check once a year. If anything out of the ordinary seems to be happening with your gas heater or stove, have it looked at immediately. Wood heaters and fireplaces can also be a danger. Periodic cleaning of your chimney by a professional is necessary to avoid soot build up. Use a mesh guard in front of your fireplace to protect the room from embers and stray sparks.

How to use electric blankets (and wheat bags) safely

Faulty or improperly used electric blankets have caused house fires in Australia, and the Department of Fire and Emergency Services has this advice for safe use:

1. Only use electric blankets to briefly warm up the bed (read the manufacturer’s instructions before use for recommended times) and then turn them off before climbing into bed.

2. When the blanket is switched on, don’t place any heavy objects on the bed, as this can damage the electric blanket’s internal wires.

3. Check for a frayed cord. If your electric blanket is over 10 years old, replace it.

4. Don’t store electric blankets by folding them like a normal blanket. Instead, they should be loosely rolled or stored by hanging to prevent damage to the heating element wires.

In 2012 alone, 40,000 faulty electric blankets were recalled in Australia. If you have any doubts about your brand of electric blanket, log into www.productsafety.gov.au to check if your brand/model is on a recall list.

It’s a good idea to check your electric blanket after lengthy storage, before you use it for the first time. Lay it flat on the bed, turn it on for a few minutes and check that it’s working correctly as it heats up.

Wheat bags heated up in the microwave can also cause a problem if you heat them longer than the manufacturer’s recommended time. The wheat inside can ignite and cause a fire, even after the wheat bag is out of the microwave8 .

Candles – tranquil, romantic, and potentially deadly

Television shows love the scene where the guy is trying to impress his lady with his romantic nature, and has decided to accomplish this by filling a room with rose petals and about a hundred candles. Statistics are unavailable on whether this smooth technique succeeds on a relationship level, but there’s little doubt it’s a great way to increase the chances of burning down the house.

Candles provide a warm glow, but the open flame can also ignite anything within reach. A sturdy candle holder should always be used (the old ‘melted wax on the teacup saucer’ doesn’t really cut it), and candles should never be used around window curtains, Christmas trees or other obviously flammable items.

Place them where they can’t be knocked over by children, pets or inebriated adults, and always put them out before going to sleep. Ensure that any paper, cardboard or plastic decoration has been removed from the candle prior to use. Candles shouldn’t be left unattended in a room.

Children love candles – they’re the coolest thing about having a power outage! But children and candles can be a problem at times, so don’t leave unsupervised kids in a room with a candle, don’t let them have candles in their bedrooms and keep candles up high and out of reach of smaller children at all times. Matches, lighters and candles should be stored in a locked cabinet if you have young ones around your house.

Candles shouldn’t be carried around the house and used as a portable light source – get a torch instead. Never use candles or any other open flame around possible gas leaks.

Fire evacuation plan – do you have one at your house?

It’s 3am and your smoke alarm goes off. There are children and an elderly person in the house. You’re disorientated from sleep. What do you do? Unless you have a fire evacuation plan worked out, you may panic – which won’t help anyone.

A home fire evacuation plan is essential so you know exactly what to do when your home and family are in danger from a house fire. Ideally, there should be two ways to escape each room of the house. Yes, home security is important, but make sure you can unlock doors, windows and security grilles quickly when you need to. Stay down close to the floor (crawl toward the exit if necessary) to avoid smoke and toxic fumes. Feel closed doors to see if they’re hot: if so, don’t open them – exit via a window instead.

You should draw up a plan that works for you and your family, and practice it twice a year so that vacating the house in an emergency becomes automatic and methodical. Check your local Fire Service website for further advice.

Keep door and window keys where everyone in the house can reach them. If you have to break a window to get out, start at the top of the window and work downwards. Use a blanket or other padding to protect yourself from sharp glass.

You should draw up a plan that works for you and your family, and practice it twice a year so that vacating the house in an emergency becomes automatic and methodical. Check your local Fire Service website for further advice.

While there may be some inconveniences involved with devising a plan, it’s definitely preferable to have fire safety practises in place and never need them, than to need them and not have them. Make sure you have a home and contents insurance policy in place in case the worst does happen.

 

1 http://www.fire.nsw.gov.au/page.php?id=879

2 http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-07-14/preventable-house-fires-cause-millions-of-dollars-of-damage/6617644

3 http://www.mfb.vic.gov.au/News/Risk-of-death-in-a-house-fire-quadruples-without-a-working-smoke-alarm.html

4 http://www.news.com.au/national/south-australia/four-out-of-five-winter-home-fires-start-in-kitchens-warn-mfs/story-fnii5yv4-1226654481104

5 https://www.fire.nsw.gov.au/page.php?id=632

6 http://www.dfes.wa.gov.au/mediareleases/Pages/MediaRelease.aspx?ItemId=616

7 https://www.productsafety.gov.au/content/index.phtml/itemId/980781

8 http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2013/05/23/3766154.htm