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After a Rash of House Fires, Firefighters Offer Safety Tips

Written by Kevin Catalano

In less than a two-week period beginning on Thanksgiving, fires struck three Monroe homes leaving one man dead, one occupant and five firefighters injured, two houses destroyed, and seven residents displaced. In the last week, two more homes were destroyed by fire in nearby Sandy Hook and Easton.

The frequency and severity of these fires has left many residents concerned and with a renewed focus on fire safety. Several Monroe residents have been reaching out to the fire marshal’s office and volunteer firefighters with questions about how to keep their family and home safe.

Although the winter months tend to bring about an increase in house fires, each of the three recent fires in Monroe was attributable to a different cause. The Old Castle Dr. fire was due to a cracked chimney, the Osborn Lane fire was due to a grease fire, and the High Meadow Rd. fire was due to a furnace problem. Smoke alarms were not present in the High Meadow Road home and only one smoke alarm was present on Osborn Lane, but it was located in the basement. 

Nationwide, the leading cause of home fires and injuries is cooking fires, most of which occur on the stovetop. Over one third of these fires are due to unattended cooking. The second leading cause is heating — mostly due to creosote build-up in chimneys, combustibles placed too close to heating units, and lack of maintenance. Smoking is the leading cause of home fire deaths, mainly due to smokers falling asleep or due to alcohol impairment.

With these three common causes in mind, below are some tips on how to prevent fires from occurring. 

Fire prevention tips

Cooking — Never leave cooking on the stovetop unattended and do not leave combustible items on unused burners. Keep pot lids nearby when cooking. If it is safe to do so, simply turning off the burner and placing a lid over a pan may quickly extinguish a cooking fire. Refer to the video that the Monroe Volunteer Fire Department released in October on its facebook page (www.facebook.com/MonroeVFD) for more information.

Heating — Inspect and clean chimneys regularly; at least annually if fireplaces or wood stoves are used often. Install a metal rain cap or spark arrestor on the top of the chimney. This will keep nests out and sparks in. Burn small, hot fires using dry/seasoned wood to reduce creosote build-up in the chimney. Creosote is a highly flammable substance resulting from the wood burning process that can line the flue of a chimney.  

Oil furnaces should be inspected and cleaned annually and gas furnaces should be inspected annually and cleaned periodically. Check with your service company for their specific recommendations. Keep combustibles safely away from furnaces, hot water heaters, space heaters, and wood stoves. 

Smoking — The safest area to smoke is outdoors, and smokers should dispose of butts in a noncombustible container. Do not smoke in bed or in an upholstered chair. 

Smoke alarms

Smoke alarms provide early detection and warning, allowing occupants a better chance to escape and firefighters a better chance of saving the house. In almost two thirds of U.S. house fires where someone is killed, no smoke alarms are present, or they are present but do not contain a working battery.

Hardwired smoke alarms (electric with a battery backup) are required in homes built after 1985. Effective in 2014, smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms are required in all residences in order to sell the home.

Batteries in most smoke alarms (typically 9-volt) need to be replaced at least annually but we suggest twice per year when changing your clocks ahead and backwards. Some newer alarms contain a sealed lithium battery that is intended to last for ten years. Alarms and detectors generally have a ten year life and should be replaced based on the manufacturer’s guidance.

Smoke alarms or detectors should be present on each level of the home, including the basement. One should be placed in each bedroom and the hallway leading to the bedrooms. In a typical ranch-style home, for example, we would expect to see up to seven devices located throughout the house (typically 3 bedrooms, 1 hallway, 1 near the kitchen, 1 living area, and 1 basement).

A hardwired system is preferable because when one head activates, they will all sound, and battery issues are only problematic in a power failure. Residents should follow the manufacturer’s recommendations on proper placement and should consider contacting an alarm company for professional advice or system installation. A listing of local alarm companies can be found at www.casiact.org.

If caught inside a burning building

In the event of a fire, get out quickly and stay out. Close the doors behind you to avoid feeding the fire more oxygen. Have a predetermined place for your family to meet outside such as a light post or mailbox so that everyone can be accounted for. Do not underestimate how quickly fire grows and smoke spreads. Most often, smoke is the immediate threat rather than the flames.

If caught inside, stay low to the ground and head toward a door. If you cannot get to a door, go to the window of an unaffected room, close the door behind you and stuff a towel or curtain under the door to keep the smoke out. If you can access a phone, let the 911 dispatcher know where you are and always call attention to yourself once help arrives.

Keep hallways and walking paths clear and reduce clutter throughout the house. This will cut down on the rate of fire spread and make it easier for you to exit during an emergency and for firefighters to navigate through your house.

These are simple tips and inexpensive solutions that can keep you, your family, your home, and your volunteer firefighters safe in 2014. Additional information and tips are available on the Monroe Volunteer Fire Department’s facebook page and at www.nfpa.org. Monroe residents that are physically unable to install smoke alarms or change their batteries may contact the fire marshal’s office for assistance at 203-452-2807.

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