Home is where your heart is — in precious family members, irreplaceable heirlooms, treasured memories, prized valuables, and in the comfort you feel when you return to rest your head after a crazy day. So how can you protect all of that from a devastating house fire?
“I’ve stood shoulder to shoulder with clients while their home was in flames, watching firefighters run through the house, kicking holes in the wall, throwing things out of the windows to try to save items for the family. It’s just heart-wrenching,” recalls Rick Fuller, an experienced real estate agent in the Antioch, CA area of San Francisco Bay.
Unfortunately, many homeowners deal with house fires every year. Data from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) shows an estimate of 339,500 reported home fires in 2019. In those house fires, 1,900 people died, and 7,000 of those fires resulted in injuries.
The potential losses from a house fire make preventing one in your own home a high priority. Unfortunately, there is no way to 100% fireproof your house. But there are steps you can take to keep your home and family as safe from fire hazards as possible. Here are 7 to prioritize.
Step 1: Check your smoke alarm system (and replace batteries often).
Fires move fast. It takes only 30 seconds for a small flame to become a raging house fire — a fact that makes early detection essential. Smoke alarms are your best defense against a full-on house fire, but simply having smoke detectors isn’t enough.
Are your alarms in the right spot?
Strategic placement of smoke alarms considers both where fires are most likely to occur, and where family members are likely to be in the house. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommends that you have smoke alarms on every level of the house, alarms inside and outside of every bedroom, and that the alarms be fewer than 10 years old.
The Home Fire Safety Survey put out by the NFPA takes smoke alarm recommendations even further. In the survey, NFPA advises placing one smoke detector for every 500 square feet of space, especially in larger homes.
The association also advises placing kitchen fire alarms at least 10 feet from cooking appliances — this is to prevent heat, steam, or smoke generated by everyday cooking from triggering the alarms. The last thing you want is to disconnect an alarm while cooking, forget to reconnect it, and lose your house to an undetected fire.
Are your alarms talking to each other?
According to the NFPA, connection between fire alarms offers the best protection. Old-school fire alarms that are independent from each other sound the alarm only in the area where the smoke or fire is detected.
Interconnected, or smart fire alarm systems, communicate with each other so that if a fire starts in the kitchen or living room while you’re asleep, connected alarms will go off in your bedrooms at the same time, rather than there being a lag.
The good news is that interconnected smoke alarms don’t necessarily need to be hardwired into your electrical system. First Alert offers a number of wireless interconnected smoke alarm systems that range in price from $47 to $103 per alarm. These interconnected alarms include a variety of features, including integrated carbon monoxide detectors and voice alerts that tell you where in the house the fire has been detected.
Will your alarms detect both flaming and smoldering fires?
Not only should smoke alarms be interconnected, but they should provide different types of smoke detection — specifically both ionization and photoelectric detection.
Ionization detectors use an ionizing radiation chamber to detect smoke from a flaming fire. When smoke enters the chamber, the ionizing radiation is disrupted and the alarm sounds. Photoelectric detection is best for detecting smoldering fire. It works by using light beams to detect smoke particles suspended in the air before it reaches the stage of flaming fire.
What kind of shape are your alarms in?
Finally, you need to keep your fire alarms in good, working condition. You should test your alarms every month and change the batteries regularly, whether you think they need to be replaced or not. Even if they rate as “good” on a battery tester, they could lose their charge within a few months, before your next scheduled date to change them.
“Create a schedule to regularly change your smoke detector batteries,” advises Fuller. “For example, make a habit of replacing your fire alarm batteries every time you change your clocks when we spring forward or fall back for Daylight Savings.”
Step 2: Install an automatic extinguishing system.
Smoke alarm systems alert you when there is a fire, but they do nothing to put that fire out. For homeowners who want the added protection of automatic assistance in extinguishing the fire, you need an automatic extinguishing system (AES), also known as residential fire sprinklers.
According to the NFPA:
“The death rate per 1,000 reported fires was 87% lower in properties with sprinklers than in properties with no automatic extinguishing systems (AES). The civilian injury rate was 27% lower and the firefighter fireground injury rate per 1,000 fires was 67% lower in sprinklered properties than in fires in properties without AES.
In fires considered large enough to activate the sprinkler, sprinklers operated 92% of the time. Sprinklers were effective in controlling the fire in 96% of the fires in which they operated. Taken together, sprinklers both operated and were effective in 88% of the fires large enough to operate them. In three-fifths of the fires in which the sprinkler failed to operate, the system had been shut off.”
Despite these telling statistics, some homeowners are reluctant to install sprinkler systems in their homes. They envision accidentally triggering the fire sprinkler system with candle usage, cigarette smoking, or a burnt dinner — which they imagine would turn on the whole sprinkler system, causing unnecessary water damage throughout the house.
In reality, fire sprinkler systems are designed to activate unit by unit, so only the sprinkler above the detected fire should activate. And it’s unlikely that you’ll accidentally activate your sprinkler system. According to Frontier Fire, a company that offers fire protection services, there’s only a one in 16 million chance that your sprinkler system will misfire and activate when there is no fire.
Installing a fire protection system in your home is less expensive than you might think. The National Sprinkler Association estimates that the installation of a sprinkler system in a new home averages to around $1.35 per square foot, or $3,375 for a 2,500 square-foot home. However, the price varies depending on where you live, ranging from $0.81 to $2.47 per square foot.
Step 3: See if you have enough fire extinguishers.
Unlike smoke detectors, residential sprinkler systems are triggered by heat from flames, not by smoke — so they only activate when a fire generates enough heat to activate them. This is ideal for when you’re asleep, but when you’re awake and nearby, you’ll need extinguishers on hand to prevent the fire from growing large and hot enough to trigger the sprinklers.
While fire extinguishers are not required for single and double occupancy residential homes, fire safety experts like Quick Response Fire Supply recommend that homeowners have fire extinguishers accessible throughout the home, especially in areas that pose a higher risk for fires. To be safe, keep an extinguisher near your kitchen, garage, fireplace, and next to any combustible compost heaps.
Note, too, that different types of fires require different extinguishing methods. For example, water works to extinguish ordinary fires — but when you put water on a grease fire, the grease is repelled by the water, causing it to splatter and spread the fire faster.
When set out to buy your extinguishers, pay attention to the types of fires that they are rated for:
If you find the array of fire extinguishers to be dizzying, keep in mind that homeowners typically just need extinguishers that can put out both common combustible fires (wood, paper, cloth, plastics, trash, etc.) and grease (or other combustible liquids like gasoline, solvents, etc.) fires.
While you can get a class K fire extinguisher for your kitchen and garage, you may want to stick with multi-purpose fire extinguishers rated as ABC fire extinguishers that can put out both common combustibles and grease fires. You can purchase an ABC-rated fire extinguisher at Home Depot for as little as $40 per extinguisher.
Fire extinguishers aren’t that tricky to use, but it’s easy to panic in the heat of a fire emergency, so take time to teach yourself and your family members where to find and how to use the extinguishers in your home before you need it.
FEMA has devised the simple mnemonic device, PASS, to help you remember house to use most extinguishers in an emergency:
Step 4: Assess your fire hazard habits regularly.
Cooking and electrical fires are the culprits behind many emergencies, and these are often accidental occurrences. However, a significant number of house fires are the result of negligence or poor fire safety habits.
Fires caused by unattended or unextinguished cigarettes result in around 1,000 deaths per year, and an estimated 18,000 house fires are caused by unattended candles.
Proper fire safety habits can mitigate the chances of negligence-caused fires. For example:
It’s best to confine smoking to the outdoors where there are fewer flammable objects and materials to catch fire. However, you should still keep an outdoor ashtray on hand rather than disposing of smoking materials in flammable foliage. If you do allow smoking indoors: keep large ashtrays available in areas where smoking is allowed; never empty ashtrays directly into garbage cans (unless you first thoroughly wet the contents first), and outlaw all smoking in bed to reduce the chances of falling asleep while smoking.
Keep lit candles at least 12 inches from anything that can burn. This includes books, curtains, pillows, blankets, towels, etc. Never leave a room with a candle burning, especially in bedrooms and bathrooms. And always trim your candle wicks down to ¼-inch in length before lighting to keep the flame size and wax usage under control.
Never use frayed or damaged extension cords, even if you’ve repaired them with electrical tape (which may come loose, or may not properly insulate the exposed wires). Never modify or force a 3-pronged plug into a 2-prong outlet. Never overload power strips with outlet expanders or multi-outlet extension cords. Always use power strips with built-in overload protection.
Never leave cooking food unattended on your stovetop. Always keep flammable items away from your stove’s cooktop — especially when using gas stoves. This includes paper towels, kitchen towels, oven mitts and potholders, curtains, and even the sleeves of your clothing. Turn the handles of your cookware in over the stovetop, not hanging out into empty space where they can be bumped or spilled. And always keep an appropriate-sized lid nearby to smother flames should your cooking catch fire.
Step 5: Establish — and practice — your house fire escape plan.
Guarding against house fires isn’t just about protecting your personal property and belongings; it’s about keeping you and your family members safe. The best way to keep your family protected in a fire emergency is to establish a house fire escape plan — and then practice it regularly.
To make your escape plan:
- Draw out the floor plan of every level of your house on a grid.
- Identify the exits.
- Address which escape route to use when.
For example, if there’s a fire in the kitchen, you may be able to use your bedroom door, the hallway, and the front door to exit the house. However, if the fire is in the hallway, you’ll need to use the bedroom window as the exit.
Also identify a meeting place outside and well away from the house so that every family member can be accounted for — and you can notify firefighters of any members that may still be inside the house.
Discuss how to exit with your family
Knowing how to exit the house in the event of a fire is just as important as planning out where to exit. Teach all family members to check the temperature of doors and door knobs before opening any doors. Checking the doors determines if the path is safe and clear for escape, and closed doors keep fires from spreading.
In addition, teach your family members to crawl to their escape route rather than walk or run, so that they drop below any rising smoke and heat that might impede their escape.
It’s also wise for all family members to learn how to stop, drop, and roll to put out the flames should their clothing catch on fire during their escape.
Remind every family member that getting out of the house and staying out of the house is most important in the event of a fire, rather than attempting to put it out with an extinguisher.
Identify strategies for upper and lower floors
For multi-level houses, such as those with a second story or a basement, you’ll likely need special equipment, such as a fire ladder, to escape. Every family member should know where the fire escape equipment is located and how to attach it to the window. Children should also practice climbing down fire escape ladders during your fire drills so that they are prepared to do so in case of an emergency.
Do dry runs
The NFPA recommends that families practice their fire escape plans at least twice a year. When family members are first learning the escape plan, everyone should be aware that the drill is happening, and the escape plan steps should be explained clearly and practiced until performed correctly.
Once your family is comfortable with your escape plans, it’s advisable to run a surprise drill at least once a year to ensure that everyone remembers the proper procedure at a moment’s notice.
Step 6: Conduct an annual appliance (and chimney) inspection.
Good home maintenance keeps your home value high while helping to prevent house fires, too. Both your major appliances, your fireplace, and your chimney should be checked annually to ensure that they don’t become fire hazards.
Fireplace and chimney
House fires caused by the fireplace itself are relatively rare, and are primarily caused by errant embers from a fireplace that is left open or has a damaged fireplace screen. You can purchase a fireplace screen for as low as $40 to $100.
However, if you notice any warning signs — such as excessive smoke, intense, hot smells, loud cracking or popping noises, or damage to your vents, chimney, or chimney cap — cease using the fireplace immediately and call in a chimney and fireplace professional.
Dryers seem so safe that many homeowners often let them run while they’re out of the home. But unattended and poorly maintained clothes dryers result in 2,900 clothes dryer house fires each year, according to FEMA.
Lint is the most common item to catch on fire, so it’s important to clean out your lint filter after each load of laundry. This will also reduce the amount of flammable lint buildup in your dryer vent and duct. Clogged vents and ducts can cause a dryer to malfunction, so you should clean out your vents and ducts at least once a year to remove buildup.
Dryer fires also happen when the belts that turn the drum break, leading the dryer’s heat source to overheat and catch fire. Dryers are only expected to last between 10 to 13 years, so if yours is nearing the end of its life, check that it’s functioning properly every time you use it.
Signs that your dryer needs repairs or replacing to prevent fires include: failure to start, your clothes remain damp after the cycle is completed, belt noises, and an unmoving drum.
Appliances are heavy energy users, and this can put stress on your electrical system. These electrical beasts also contain motors and mechanics inside them that can catch fire if they malfunction, break down, or overheat.
The easiest way to ensure that your appliances aren’t a fire hazard is to make sure that they are plugged directly into the wall outlets, not via a power strip or extension cord.
You should also access your appliance outlets every year to ensure that the power cord, the plug, and the outlet itself are not hot to the touch. If any of these components are hot, unplug the appliance immediately and call in an electrician or appliance repair professional.
Finally, be sure that appliances are plugged into appropriate outlets that will shut off should the appliance malfunction.
“You need to be mindful of your appliances by ensuring that your electrical outlets have a ground fault circuit interrupter, also known as a GFCIs. This is really important because when an appliance malfunctions, the GFCI breaks the circuit, preventing the appliance from catching on fire,” explains Fuller.
Many homebuyers rely on their home inspection report to note any potential fire hazards, but surprisingly whether or not your home has GFCI outlets in the appropriate places is not on the list of hazards that inspectors must check. While many inspectors will note whether or not you have GFCI outlets where appliances will be plugged in, some may not.
If you’re unsure whether your appliances are plugged into GFCI outlets, you may want to have a fire safety professional come in and check for you.
Step 7: Conduct a Home Fire Safety Inspection (or bring in a pro to do one for you).
That home inspection report you got when you purchased your house isn’t just a tool to negotiate a better price during escrow; it’s a vital report on the condition of your house. Home inspectors are required to note any safety issues — including potential fire hazards — such as faulty electrical wiring.
However, home inspectors are not fire safety inspectors, so, as noted above, they may not notate all potential fire hazards, such as a lack of GFCI outlets for appliances.
Since you cannot rely on your home inspection report to catch all fire safety hazards in your home, it’s essential that you either conduct one yourself or bring in a fire safety pro to complete an inspection for you.
Many government agencies offer detailed home fire safety checklists, including the NFPA, FEMA, and the Red Cross. These checklists help you assess potential fire hazards and instruct you on proper fire safety precautions.
If you’re not comfortable assessing your home’s fire safety on your own, you can bring in a professional to do one for you. Many community fire stations offer free fire safety inspections to residents that will also address other safety concerns, especially if there are children in the home.
Fire safety isn’t a one-time action — it’s a lifetime habit.
The one mistake homeowners make when assessing their home’s fire safety is that they treat it like a one-and-done task. It takes discipline and commitment to keep your smoke alarms operational, check your appliances annually, practice your escape plans and extinguisher usage regularly, and maintain good fire safety habits. If you find yourself slacking, remind yourself of the pain, loss, and devastation you’ll suffer in the event of a house fire.
“Most people don’t realize that while the fire certainly causes a lot of damage, it’s the smoke and it’s the water damage caused by trying to put out the fire that often creates the biggest problems. If that water damage isn’t properly repaired, it can lead to mold and mildew problems in the future,” explains Fuller.
“It’s a whole lot better to avoid a house fire than it is to manage one after the fact.”
Header Image Source: (Piotr Chrobot / Unsplash)