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Disaster Prep and First Response

What to Do When Fire Hits Home

Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Ehling

Fire safety is personal for me, which is why I became a volunteer firefighter and why I’m sharing important fire safety best practices. 

I remember my mom getting burned when I was 10 years old. 

She had put a pan on the stove and then forgot about it and the grease caught fire. I still recall a dark spot on the kitchen cabinets. Fortunately for us, our home was not damaged but in that moment my mom instinctively did what you are never supposed to do — she picked the pan up from the stove and headed for the sink. She had the physical scars from that event for the rest of her life. 

That small fire and my mom’s response made an impression on me. I grew up in a volunteer firefighter family, but it was in the days before the fire service was very active on the home fire safety front. Now we teach the basics: Fire is fast, fire is hot, fire is deadly. A fire can turn from a small flame into a big fire in as little as 30 seconds, so it is critical that people get out fast. 

Prepping your home

Before a fire occurs, you should know about the home systems that can save lives, and the objects and appliances which can become deadly.

For example, we know that having a home fire sprinkler system could save the day. Home fire sprinkler systems save lives, both those of civilians and of firefighters, as well as property by stopping the fire before it gets out of control. 

On the risk side, today our homes are loaded with plastics from the furniture, the floor coverings, and the contents. Plastics burn hotter and faster than many other materials; it is not uncommon to see 600 degree temperatures. 

When fire burns it creates smoke that will envelope the home in total darkness. This smoke and toxic gases from burning objects kill both civilians and firefighters alike. Asphyxiation is the leading cause of fire deaths.

Creating an action plan

You can take steps to prevent fires by making sure that your home’s electrical systems are up to date, taking care when cooking and cleaning your fireplaces, and teaching your kids that fire is not something to mess with. If you do have a small grease fire while cooking, either put the lid back on or use baking soda or a fire extinguisher on it — never pick up the pan or use regular water. 

You also need to be prepared in advance in case a fire should occur. Create and practice a home fire escape plan with all members of your family. Make sure that your smoke detectors are properly installed and working. If you can, invest in home fire sprinklers. Keep your doors closed, especially when sleeping. It is amazing how that will slow the spread of fire from one room to the next and create a livable space until firefighters can arrive on the scene. 

If you are in a burning structure, get low to the ground and crawl out. Smoke and heat rise, so crawling on the floor will put you in the safest and coolest part of the home. Once you get out, stay out. Nothing inside is worth risking your life or the lives of firefighters who would have to go in to rescue you. 

Going a step further

You can be there for your neighbors in need as a volunteer firefighter or as a fire safety educator working to prevent fires in the first place. Many communities across our country are protected by volunteer firefighters — people who answer the call for help from their neighbors. Check with your local fire department or visit www.MakeMeAFirefighter.org to see if they need volunteers. As anyone in the fire service will tell you, the best fire is one that never happens. 

If you follow these suggestions, you can protect yourself and your family. Find resources to help with fire safety at www.nfpa.org and www.usfa.fema.gov

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