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Improve Your Home Fire Safety by Starting in the Kitchen

By Michael Rudeen

  • Fire is one of the most serious dangers in the home, and your kitchen presents the greatest risk. But wherever a fire starts, there are steps you can take to reduce the danger and help keep your family safe.

    Home fires cause a lot of misery in the U.S. — 370,000 fires in 2011 resulted in $6.9 billion in damages, according to the most recent statistics from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The good news is that damages that year were the lowest since 2006. The better news is that since 1977, deaths from home fires have dropped 57 percent, from 5,865 to 2,520 in 2011. Injuries have fallen nearly 36 percent over the same period, the NFPA reports.

    Judy Comoletti, NFPA division manager for public education, credited several factors for the improvement: safer building products, better building codes and regulations, and safer behaviors by homeowners, including the "near universal" adoption of smoke alarms.

    One of the best ways to limit fire risk is, quite simply, to be vigilant in the kitchen, where a high proportion of fires occur. Sandy Facinoli, chief of prevention and information programs for the U.S. Fire Administration — part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — notes the importance of "just staying in the kitchen when you're cooking. There are so many examples of huge fire loss and injury and death when people walked away."

    Other dangerous behaviors in the kitchen, Facinoli says, include cooking while wearing clothes that hang too close to the stovetop; moving a hot pot near a flammable substance or vice versa; letting young children get too close to the stove; using drugs or alcohol while cooking; and, simply, not paying attention to what you're doing.

    October is Fire Safety Month
    Now is the time to take steps to improve your safety using some tips from the NFPA. With 42 percent of home fires originating in the kitchen, that's the best place to start:

    • Stay in the kitchen if you are frying, grilling or broiling food. If you're simmering, baking, roasting or boiling, don't leave the house, and check the kitchen regularly. Keep things that can catch fire away from the stovetop, and have a lid handy to smother small grease fires. If a fire starts in the oven or microwave, turn it off and keep the door closed.
    • Install smoke alarms in every bedroom, as well as outside the sleeping area, and on every level of the home. Interconnected smoke alarms — if one sounds, they all sound — are preferable. Test smoke alarms monthly; replace after 10 years. Install carbon monoxide alarms in a central location outside each sleeping area and on every level of the house. Keeping a fire extinguisher on hand can save lives and property, but the No. 1 priority is to get out safely.
    • If you do smoke, go outside. Never smoke in bed. Keep smoking materials out of the reach of children and use a deep, sturdy ashtray away from anything that can burn. Make sure you put out a cigarette, and even then, don't discard it in vegetation that could ignite easily.
    • Extinguish candles when you leave the room or go to bed. Keep them at least a foot from anything that can burn. Never leave children alone with a burning candle; keep matches and lighters out of their reach. Use candleholders that won't tip easily, and put them on a clean, uncluttered surface. Don't light a candle if oxygen is in use anywhere in the home. Also, always use battery-powered lighting during a power outage — not candles — for safety.
    • Keep anything that can burn at least three feet from your furnace or any other heating unit. Maintain a three-foot kid-free zone around open fires and space heaters, and never use your oven to heat your home. Turn off portable heaters when leaving the room or going to bed. Have heating equipment and chimneys inspected and cleaned yearly. Use a sturdy screen to stop fireplace embers from flying into the room. Let ashes cool before putting them into a metal container a safe distance from your home.
    • Make a home escape plan and practice it; know at least two ways out of every room and specify an outside meeting place. If you have a fire, leave immediately, closing doors behind you to contain it. If the smoke alarm sounds, get out; don't go back inside for people or pets. If you must escape through smoke, keep low — under the smoke. If you try to fight a small fire, make sure others leave and that you have a clear exit. Call 911 AFTER you leave.
    "If we can change the behavior of people to be a little more vigilant and keep fire safety on their minds, yes, we can prevent a lot of fires," Comoletti said.