By Tom Kiurski
It is not news to the fire service that people often underestimate their risk of being involved with a fire. Perhaps this is why so many Americans fail to plan and practice a home escape plan.
A survey, conducted by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), had Americans rate their risk of facing disasters. The survey revealed that 31 percent felt most at risk of tornadoes, while only 27 percent named fire as the highest risk. Hurricanes followed at 14 percent, earthquakes and floods tied at nine percent each, and terrorist attacks picked up five percent. When the same group was asked what kind of disaster they felt most prepared for, the highest percentage, at 31 percent, felt they were most prepared for fire.
Statistics reveal that our efforts may be best spent preparing for fire. The average annual U.S. death rate from tornadoes comes in at less than 100 lives per year, while fire claims about 4,000 victims annually. Property loss per year follows a similar pattern, with tornado damage costing approximately $1 billion per year, and fire damage amounting to about $12 billion annually.
Although people may feel more prepared for fire, in many cases this opposite is true. Although 96 percent of U.S. homes have smoke alarms in them, nearly one quarter of the devices do not work. In about half the fires where smoke alarms didn’t work, batteries were missing or disconnected. Batteries were dead in about 15 percent of the cases where smoke alarms didn’t work.
Americans, along with help from today’s fire service personnel, must take charge of their safety by reducing their risk of fire losses. Encourage citizens to install and maintain smoke alarms in their homes. Families should have a minimum of one smoke alarm per floor in the home, mounted on the ceiling or high on the wall. Since smoke from fire rises, the higher up the alarm is placed, the better. When mounting alarms, remember to avoid the “dead air” space that’s found in corners where the ceiling and walls meet.
Alarms should be tested once a month and batteries changed every year. Once instructed in its importance, middle- and high-school-aged children often take the lead in testing smoke alarms.
Alarm options for citizens include the 10-year battery model smoke alarms, and hard-wired alarms. Hard-wired smoke alarms should have a battery, replaced annually, that acts as a back-up in the event of an electrical fire or during power outages.
Families should review their home escape plan, noting locations of smoke alarms, fire extinguishers, first aid kits and disaster supplies. Once the review is complete, a “fire drill” should be practiced to ensure learning. Members of the household should be familiar with two ways out of every room in the home and know the location of a designated outside meeting place.
Many fire departments visit elementary schools and assign the escape drill as a homework project for the children. Ask all family members to sign the escape plan. It is hoped that, by signing the plan, they will be curious enough to ask about it and volunteer to practice it with the children. Practice makes permanent, and it may lead to a good time of family bonding during the practice session.
Tom Kiurski is a lieutenant, a paramedic, and the director of fire safety education for Livonia (MI) Fire & Rescue. His book, Creating a Fire-Safe Community: A Guide for Fire Safety Educators (Fire Engineering, 1999) is a guide for bringing the safety message to all segments of the community efficiently and economically.