Cold and Dark

by Glenn A. Gaines
Deputy U. S. Fire Administrator

Recently I got up at 5:15 AM to get a run in before heading up to the National Emergency Training Center in Emmitsburg to fulfill my responsibilities as Deputy U. S. Fire Administrator. Something was clearly different. It was cold and dark. No matter, I thought. With the street lights and pole lamps in front of the neighborhood homes I can see well enough. While running, I am often able to allow my thoughts to drift from work to family to national and local issues. This particular morning my thoughts began to center on what is coming at us in the next few weeks. This is especially important for those of us living above latitude 38. It is commonly referred to as winter.

Fire service professionals know the most deadly months of the year for American citizens in terms of fire death and injury. The winter months of December, January and February typically produce up to thirty-five percent of annual fire deaths. We also know that many more vehicle deaths and injuries occur during the time period around the holiday season. At this time of year, unique weather-influenced incidents occur like:

  • Heating source (furnace, chimney, insert, portable heating device etc.) fires
  • Slowed response due to ice, snow, and sleet conditions
  • Slip hazards around our facilities and on the incident scene
  • Hose line and fire pump freezing
  • Exposure risks for evacuees firefighters and EMS personnel

And the list goes on.

Before we enter into winter days, fall provides us with opportunities to prepare for the dark and cold. Now is the time for all of us to take preventive steps while the weather continues to be temperate. I have listed some straightforward actions and opportunities we should engage in and a little about the rationale for each.

October/November

  • The month of October began with two important fire service events. Firefighters who died in the line of duty during 2012 were honored by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation during the 32d annual Memorial Weekend. And, Fire Prevention Week kicked-off the theme of “Prevent Kitchen Fires” to spread the word that more fires start in the kitchen than in any other part of the home and that most injuries and deaths from fire occur in the home. We can honor our fallen firefighters all year long by doing everything we can to prevent fires from occurring in the first place.
  • Remind citizens that combustible items may have accumulated over the spring and summer months and should be moved at least three feet away from all heating devices.
  • Heating units, both permanent and portable, should be inspected and serviced by a licensed professional.
  • Nearly one hundred fire stations burn each year in the U. S. Accordingly the steps we encourage our citizens to take must also be taken to ensure the safety and health of our personnel.
  • October was also Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Cancer is second only to heart disease as a killer of women and breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among women. Fire and EMS organizations can raise the awareness of both women and men to follow prescribed checkup routines to prevent the potential serious consequences we see develop when this disease is not treated early.

November and December

November is known for the traditional beginning of the holiday season for many Americans. When partnered with the December holidays it is also a time when we see more residential cooking-related fires than any other two months in the year.

January and February

These are two of the most dangerous months of the year for Americans. This is especially true for those living in the northern states. Cold and bad weather keep people inside their homes, so indoor activity increases. The children are trapped in the home and can get into all sorts of trouble including life safety hazards. Due to heating and the dry air associated with the heating season, interior furnishings and decorations are stripped of moisture creating a condition where they are increasingly combustible. To maintain warmth, some people in residential occupancies resort to portable heaters. This is especially common in the southern states where whole house heating isn’t a regular necessity as it is in colder states. Portable heaters (especially unlisted or uncertified portable heaters) are dangerous if not used properly and are the causes of many residential fires. So, the southern states are not exempt from fire risk during the heating season.

Knowing that more than eighty percent of fire fatalities and seventy-five percent of fire related injuries occur in residential occupancies, it is critical that we enhance our efforts to mitigate, if not prevent, this potential increase in risk to American citizens. The fire service does not have code enforcement authority inside residential occupancies; accordingly, our only methodology is public education.

Printed, audio and video media continues to be a powerful tool and should be considered. As a reminder, the U. S. Fire Administration Web site shown above is a great resource for free PSAs that are focused on this risk and others. However, the best minds in public education tell us that one of the most successful communication mediums is personal contact from a trusted source. Boots on the ground at public events such as fairs, exhibitions and other community events along with firefighters visiting residents on weekends when they are home are proven strategies for success.

It is time. It is time for us to act now to set a new standard for reducing the suffering and loss of these annual winter seasons. Some minimal adjustment in our schedules and effort can make the difference for a safer 2013/14 winter season.

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