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Seven Fire Prevention Lessons Learned
October 06, 2016
Fire Prevention Week (October 9 – 15, 2016) was designated to commemorate the Great Chicago Fire of October 8 -10, 1871. It killed 300 people; left 100,000 others homeless; destroyed more than 17,000 structures; resulted in an estimated $200 million in damages. The importance of this fire cannot be understood simply by citing statistics, loss of lives or property alone. Without a doubt, its major impact has been in how we think about fires. The focus has shifted from fire fighting techniques to fire prevention and loss control as a result of this devastating event.
Today, we are far more aware of fire hazards and how to fight fires effectively. In addition, technology has made and continues to make a huge impact on fire prevention and firefighting, particularly in the commercial area. Home fires, however, are a different matter. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), US fire departments responded to an estimated 357,000 home structure fires per year during 2009 – 2013, the most recent information available. Over 92% of all structure fire deaths resulted from home fires and on average, seven people died in US home fires per day.
Most fire prevention tools and strategies were first implemented in the commercial and industrial areas. According to the NFPA, US fire departments responded to an average of 37,000 fires at industrial or manufacturing properties each year, with annual losses from these fires estimated at 18 civilian deaths, 279 civilian injures, and $1 billion in direct property damage.
Lesson I: Be Well Alarmed!
Smoke alarms are the most frequently used tool to protect the lives of people in the workplace and in their homes. The first electric fire alarms were invented in 1890 and quickly became a necessity for all industrial facilities. Originally expensive and large, they were generally used in major commercial and industrial facilities.
The first affordable home smoke detector was invented in 1965 by David D. Pearsall and Stanley Bennett Petersen. As of 2013, it was estimated that smoke detectors were installed in about 93% of US homes. Yet home fire deaths – including those in one-and-two family homes – still accounts for 85% of all civilian fire deaths. Almost two-thirds of US home fire deaths resulted in homes with no smoke alarms or no working smoke alarms. It’s estimated that about 30% of all installed alarms are not working because of age, removal of batteries or failure to replace dead batteries.
Lesson 2: Consider Sprinklers
Invented in 1874, fire sprinklers were among one of the first techniques promoted to prevent and/or mitigate fire risks in commercial enterprises. They have also dramatically improved the task of fighting commercial and industrial fires, as sprinklers slow the fire down and allow firefighters time to get the fire under control. Combined with smoke alarms, they’ve proven to protect lives and property against fire in a wide variety of commercial settings.
Today’s average home size is larger than homes built 50 years ago and many of them are built with open interior floor plans. Stairways are typically open, exposing upper floors to rapid fire spread. The fire load inside the homes has also increased and lightweight assemblies (popularly called “lightweight construction”) fail faster under fire than traditional lumber. Since 2009, US model building codes have included provisions to sprinkler new, one and two-family dwellings, yet automatic sprinkler systems are still relatively new and unused in home building and home protection. That’s why the NFPA currently has a nationwide Fire Sprinkler Initiative to encourage the use of home fire sprinklers and the adoption of fire sprinkler requirements for new construction. According to the NFPA, sprinklers could decrease the fire death rate per 1,000 reported home fires by about 80% and the average loss per home fire by about 70%.
Lesson 3: Get equipped to extinguish
Typically containing substances of water, dry chemicals, wet chemicals, foam or carbon dioxide, fire extinguishers are designed to put out small fires, like those started in the kitchen. Two of every five fires reported started in the kitchen. Two out of five home civilian fire injuries (39%) were caused by these incidents, and 16% of home fire deaths resulted from kitchen fires. Given that a top cause of home fires is cooking, fire extinguishers can be an important tool in preventing a small fire from getting out of control. Many fire prevention experts suggest having one on every floor of a home and one in the car. It’s important though for home owners to take the time to learn how to use a fire extinguisher properly. Many local fire companies provide lessons.
Lesson 4: Have a plan!
Commercial facilities or businesses are fortunate to have a safety officer or risk manager, who as part of their job makes sure that everyone knows what to do in the event of a fire. Does your family have such a plan? Local fire departments often use their local fire prevention activities to teach students the importance of having an escape plan which includes knowing where all exits are and having a place to meet up with other family members.
Lesson 5: Keep it Clean. Heating equipment (14% of total) is one of the leading causes of structure fires in industrial or manufacturing facilities. They ranked second (16%) in reported home fires, home fire deaths and home fire injuries, according to NFPA. The main factor contributing to heating equipment fires is the failure to clean the equipment, including the grill and the chimney. Chimneys should be inspected annually if used frequently. Keep the grill clean. Don’t place heating equipment too close to things that can burn, such as upholstered furniture, clothing, mattress or bedding. One-quarter of home structure fires involving grills started on or in a courtyard, terrace or patio or on an exterior balcony or open porch. All were very close to the home building structure.
Lesson 6: Make Your Home a “No Smoking” Zone
Most commercial buildings and industrial sites prohibit smoking on the premises. This technique has been proven successful in the commercial and industrial sectors, but hasn’t been as stringently enforced or used in America’s homes.
Only 7% of reported home fires started in the bedroom, but these fires caused one-quarter (24%) of home fire deaths and one in five (20%) home fire injuries. Just 4% of home fires started in the living room, family room or den, but these fires caused one-quarter (24%) of home fire deaths and 10% of home fire injuries. Two-thirds of the home smoking fires originate with (1) upholstered furniture or (2) mattresses or bedding.
Lesson 7: Adopt Best Practices.
We work with commercial businesses to make sure their storage and maintenance practices don’t pose fire risks. (Check out what happens when dust builds up in an industrial setting in my article Up in Dust!) Factories make sure that dust doesn’t build up on machinery or vents because of the possibility of explosions.
While dust in the home may not be explosive, it can cause its own set of problems, for instance, when it builds up in a dryer. Clothes dryer fires happen more often than one might think, accounting for 16,800 home structure fires and doing more than $236 million in property damage in 2010. The most frequent cause of fires in dryers are lint/dust (29%) and clothing (28%). Clean the lint dispenser in the dryer after each use. Also make sure the dryer is properly vented. (See how fire fighters use venting in industrial fires in my article, To vent or not to vent.)
Good housekeeping an important part of fire prevention both in commercial facilities and private homes. Here’s some to best practices to consider:
- Avoid build-up. Keep leaves from accumulating under deck stairs, and again, keep grills separated from the house.
- Practice smart storage. Don't store oily rags or hazardous materials under your deck. Home fires have ignited as a result of rags bursting into flames due to the high temperatures most of the US faced. Store flammable liquids like gasoline in a detached shed and in a UL-Listed/FM-approved container. Pool chemicals should be segregated and never stored near hydrocarbons.
- Don't leave fire starters unattended. That includes candles burning, lit Christmas trees and dinner on the stove.
Since 1925, when President Calvin Coolidge first declared it, National Fire Prevention week has been a time when we can all brush up on our fire safety and awareness skills. This year should be no exception. We hope these tips serve as helpful reminders that fire prevention and safety practices are a must at work and at home.
For more information about XL Catlin’s property loss control programs for commercial entities, contact John Frank, who coordinates this effort, at firstname.lastname@example.org for further discussion.