It’s the middle of the night, and a faint roaring, crackling sound has woken you from sleep. You smell smoke and open your bedroom door to investigate. Suddenly, you’re blasted with heat and the eerily bright orange light of a raging fire in the hallway.
Would you know what to do in such a horrific situation? Do you have the tools and know-how to keep your family and pets safe if a house fire occurs?
Most people don’t realize how little time they have to safely get out of a house fire. According to Ready.gov, it only takes 30 seconds for a house fire to become life-threatening, and most people have less than two minutes to escape before they’re completely trapped.
But there is a lot you can do to protect your family and home and avoid a terrible tragedy.
How Common Are House Fires?
Most of us assume a house fire won’t happen to us. However, house fires are fairly common.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports that in 2017, there were 379,000 residential fires in the United States, which is up 5% from the year before. The states of West Virginia and Alaska had the highest number of residential fires.
According to the Insurance Information Institute, 3,400 people lost their lives in residential fires in 2017, an average of nine people per day. And the type of home you live in increases or decreases your chance of surviving a fire. NFPA analysis found that people living in apartment complexes were 5% more likely to die in a fire than those living in a one or two-story home.
The good news is that home fire deaths continue to decline each year. Total fire deaths in 2017 were 55% lower than in 1977. And the U.S. Fire Administration reports that over the past 10 years, the risk of dying from a fire has decreased 6%.
While deaths are going down, financial losses continue to go up each year. According to the NFPA, property loss totals from residential fires for 2017 averaged $21,463 per home, up 29% from the year before.
Tips to Keep Your Home & Family Safe From Fire
Fortunately, there are many steps you can take to protect your family and home from the devastation of fire.
1. Stay Safe in the Kitchen
According to the NFPA, cooking is the leading cause of residential fires. So it should come as no surprise that there are more fires on Thanksgiving Day than any other day of the year. The day before Thanksgiving and Christmas Day are a close second and third for residential fires.
To stay safe in the kitchen, never leave cooking food unattended. If you have to leave the kitchen, turn off the stove or cooktop. If your hair is long, keep it pulled up so there is no risk of it catching on a hot pot or burning flame. Don’t wear loose clothing or long, dangling jewelry, which might ignite if you bend over the range.
Be extra careful if there are children in the home.Keep all pot and skillet handles turned inward so a child can’t reach up and grab a hot pot.
Last, keep any combustible material away from your cooktop. This includes paper products, dish towels, wrappers, or oven mitts. Clean up spilled grease as soon as it cools. Built-up grease can ignite quickly.
If a grease fire does ignite, never use water to put it out. The water will turn to steam and cause severe burns. It can also splatter the grease and cause the fire to spread. Instead, smother the fire using a fire extinguisher, pot lid, or fire blanket.
2. Install Smoke Detectors
Smoke detectors are a big reason home fire deaths continue to decrease. Smoke detectors provide an early warning that can give you and your family enough time to escape.
You should have a smoke detector installed on every level of your home. Current building codes require each bedroom to have its own smoke detector and an additional smoke detector outside each sleeping area, all of which are wired together so if one goes off, they all go off.
It’s also smart to install smoke detectors that detect carbon monoxide, like these from First Alert. This is especially important if you have a wood stove or fireplace you use in winter.
Fire experts recommend you change the batteries during daylight saving time and test your alarm monthly to make sure it’s still working. Replace smoke detectors every 10 years. And you’ll help prevent false alarms by keeping your detectors clean and free of cobwebs and dust.
3. Install Fire Extinguishers & Fire Ladders
You should have a fire extinguisher on every level of your home, including the basement and garage, and an extra one in the kitchen.
Install your fire extinguishers high on the wall so they’re easily accessible and away from children.
You also need to know how to use your fire extinguishers. Read the directions and become familiar with how they operate since you won’t have time to learn how to use them when a fire breaks out. Call your local fire department and see if they offer any training for homeowners to use a fire extinguisher. Try to stick with one manufacturer for all your fire extinguishers. Fire extinguishers from different manufacturers operate differently, and having different instructions for each extinguisher will be confusing if a fire does break out.
If you have to use your fire extinguisher, remember to aim low (toward the base of the fire), squeeze the lever slowly and evenly, and sweep back and forth.
If you have a multiple-story home, you should have at least two fire ladders upstairs, kept in separate rooms just in case one room is inaccessible due to fire.
4. Create a Fire Escape Plan
An escape plan is essential because when a fire breaks out, every second counts. Remember, a fire can turn life-threatening in 30 seconds. And the majority of fires break out late at night or early in the morning when everyone is asleep, so your family needs to know what to do before an emergency occurs.
To make a fire escape plan, find two ways to get out of every room in your home. Talk with your family, including young children, about how they can escape each room of the house. Make sure all the windows in your home can be easily opened and that screens can be removed or kicked out of the way.
Designate a meeting place outside your home where everyone will gather. This could be a tree well away from the structure of your home or a neighbor’s front porch.
Next, practice escaping each room with your family. Practice in the dark crawling on the floor since these are the most likely conditions you’ll experience in a fire.
5. Be Extra Careful During Holidays
Winter holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas have the highest number of residential fires. These fires are also more deadly. The Insurance Information Institute (III) reports that 1 out of every 32 reported Christmas fires resulted in a death, compared to 1 death out of every 143 fires the rest of the year.
Monitor Your Christmas Tree
One of the reasons for the higher rate of fatalities are Christmas trees, which are highly flammable due to the sap content. The NFPA reports that lighting or electrical equipment around the tree causes 43% of Christmas tree fires.
If you put up a Christmas tree, make sure you keep it well watered. This means watering every day. If the water level falls below the stump even once, a seal will form over the cut and no more water will be absorbed. Dried-out trees can catch fire within seconds and can catch walls or curtains on fire in less than a minute. This type of fire is also particularly deadly because it gets so hot so quickly.
All this being said, real Christmas trees are still considered safer than artificial trees as long as they’re kept well watered and at least 3 feet away from any heat source.
Inspect Holiday Lighting
Holiday lighting is another concern. Make sure your holiday lights are in good condition with no loose connections, fraying cords, or cracked lamps. And never use multiple extension cords with lighting, as this is a major fire hazard. Stick with one cord to stay safe.
Many people like to use candles to add warmth and ambiance to their home during the winter holidays. However, the III reports that candles cause 11% of home fires in December and 10% of fires in November and January.
A survey conducted by Shriners and sourced by CBS News found that 25% of people leave burning candles unattended in their homes, and 27% leave burning candles within the reach of children.
To reduce the risk of fire, keep candles at least 12 inches away from anything that can burn, and never use them to light or decorate a Christmas tree. Tealights placed on top of toilet tanks for holiday parties are particularly dangerous; people sit down, and their hair or clothing can catch fire. Never put burning candles in the bathroom.
If you love the warm glow candles give your home, use battery-operated flameless candles, which are much safer.
Be Careful With Turkey Fryers
Frying any type of food increases the risk of a kitchen fire, but turkey fryers are particularly dangerous. That’s because they’re used on a stand, which can easily tip over, and they require large amounts of very hot oil.
To reduce the risk of fire when using a turkey fryer, only use it outdoors on a stable surface. Make sure children and pets stay at least 3 feet away from the fryer at all times, and don’t allow any rambunctious games — such as running or ball playing — anywhere near the cooking area.
Putting a turkey into an over-filled turkey fryer can cause the grease to spill and ignite. Before you fill your fryer with oil, put the turkey in and then add enough water to cover it. Then, take out the turkey and note where the waterline is. This will allow you to better estimate how much oil you’ll need based on how much liquid the turkey displaces when it’s immersed.
To make sure the oil doesn’t overheat and start a fire, check the temperature frequently with a cooking thermometer. The oil should maintain a steady temperature of 350 degrees Fahrenheit (176 degrees Celsius).
6. Teach Your Children Fire Safety
If you have children, it’s important you teach them what to do if a fire does ignite in your home.
Explain What Smoke Detectors Do
Start by showing them where all the smoke detectors are and explain what they do. Next, let them hear what the smoke alarm sounds like when it goes off. This can be scary, especially for young children, which is why they need to hear it and get used to it when no emergency is present.
Practice “Stop, Drop, and Roll”
In addition to practicing your evacuation plan with your kids, you also need to teach them to “stop, drop, and roll” if their hair or clothing catches fire and help them practice this technique as well.
Teach Them Not to Hide
Many child deaths from fire occur because the child tried to hide from the fire, typically in a closet or under the bed, or they tried to hide from firefighters, who can look scary in their firefighting gear.
If you have young children, make sure they understand they cannot hide from a fire; they must get out as quickly as possible. Show them what firefighters look like with all their gear on. If possible, take them on a tour at your local fire department so they learn not to be afraid.
Make It Fun
Make learning about fires fun using learning materials at Sparky.org, the National Fire Protection Association’s website for kids, or FireSafeKid.org, run by the Burn Institute. Both websites have interactive games and activities that will help kids of all ages learn what to do during a fire.
7. Check Your Insurance Coverage
Know how much of your “main dwelling” — the physical structure of your home — your homeowners insurance covers in the event of a fire. This is known as Coverage A in the breakdown of your homeowners insurance. It does not include the contents of your home or the land, but only the structure.
Next, you need to check that you have proper coverage of your personal property (Coverage C). If your house caught fire, would you have significant coverage for everything you own? Does your policy cover the cash value of personal items or the replacement value? If you are a renter, make sure you have renters insurance to protect your personal property.
If you feel like your policy doesn’t provide adequate coverage, purchase additional coverage for peace of mind. This is also the perfect time to price shop. PolicyGenius will give you quotes from multiple companies within minutes so you know you’re getting the best rates on your homeowner’s insurance.
Next, take pictures and make a video of everything that is in your home and on your property. Keep a copy of the pictures and video on a USB stick and store it at a friend or family member’s home. Also, email yourself a copy of the documents or use online storage. This will help you provide the necessary evidence to prove what you lost in the fire.
You should also have a fireproof safe or lockbox to store all your important documents.
What to Do During a Fire
It’s your worst nightmare: Your home is on fire and you must get your family out safely. What do you need to do to survive?
- Stay Low. At eye level, air temperatures can reach 600 degrees Fahrenheit (315 degrees Celsius) or hotter, which will scorch your lungs and melt your clothing. The air near the floor can be as cool as 100 degrees — hot but survivable. The air will also be less smokey near the floor, so crawl to the nearest exit.
- Test Doors and Doorknobs. Before you open a door, touch it and the doorknob quickly with your hand to see if they’re hot. If either is, don’t open it, and look for a secondary way out. If you do open the door, go slowly and be ready to slam it if there is fire or heavy smoke.
- Call 911. Your first priority is to get everyone out of the home safely. As soon as you’re out, call 911.
- Cover Vents. If you can’t get out, keep the door closed and cover vents and door cracks with a cloth or blanket. Call 911 and tell the operator where you are. Signal for help outside a window using a cloth or sheet.
- Protect Your Lungs. Cover your mouth and nose with a towel or bandana and do the same for your children to reduce smoke inhalation.
- Stay Out. Once everyone is safely out of the house, stay out. Don’t go back inside for valuables. They’re not worth your life.
Another way to keep your family safe is to keep fire blankets next to each person’s bed. Use fire blankets as a shield from the hot flames and scorching air so everyone can get out of the house without getting burned.
A house fire is everyone’s worst nightmare. However, with planning and practice, a house fire doesn’t have to be a tragedy. Your home and valuables can be replaced, but your family can’t. Simple steps like preparing an evacuation plan and practicing with your kids will go a long way to ensuring they know what to do and how to get out if a fire occurs.
Do you have any tips for preparing for a house fire or getting out safely?