Fire in the Home

Fire is the fourth largest accidental killer in the United States, behind motor vehicle accidents, falls, and drownings. It is also the disaster that families are mostly likely to experience. Over 80 percent of all fire deaths occur where people sleep, such as in homes or hotels. Most fires occur when people are likely to be less alert such as between midnight and morning. Eighty-four percent of house and building fires are accidental, such as those caused by poor electrical wiring or careless behavior. However, 16 percent are set intentionally through arson or acts of terrorism.

Approximately three-quarters of all fire fatalities occur in residential dwellings. On average, fires kill nearly 5,500 Americans each year. Over 30,000 people are injured in fires annually. In the United States, someone dies in a fire every 40 minutes. Most often, victims are children or the elderly. Nearly 25 percent of the fires that kill young children are started by children playing with fire. Approximately 1,300 senior citizens die in fires annually. Each year, fire causes over $2 billion worth of damage to homes.


American homes suffer an unwanted fire every 10 seconds, and every 60 seconds they suffer a fire serious enough to call the fire department. Most importantly, every two and a half-hours someone is killed in a home fire - that's over 3,500 people killed in 2000 alone. Another 20,000 people are injured in home fires in a typical year.

Protecting your family from fire requires advance planning for what to do if fire strikes. This includes the use of protective devices, usually smoke alarms, to provide early warning of fire, especially at night when they are most vulnerable. However, depending on the size and layout of your home and the characteristics of your family, you may need to do more to assure their safety. This brochure was written to provide the information you need to decide what you must do to protect your family from fire.

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The Dangers of House Fires

Most home fires occur in the kitchen while cooking and are the leading cause of injuries from fire. However, they are often extinguished with only minor damage since a person is generally present. Common causes of fires at night are carelessly discarded cigarettes, sparks from fireplaces without spark screens or glass doors, and heating appliances left too close to furniture or other combustibles. These fires can be particularly dangerous because they may smolder for a long period of time before being discovered by sleeping residents.

The leading cause of death in a fire is asphyxiation. Fire victims seldom see the flames. Fire consumes the oxygen in the air, thereby increasing the concentration of deadly carbon monoxide in the atmosphere. Inhaling carbon monoxide causes a loss of consciousness or death within minutes.

Most victims of fire succumb to the smoke and toxic gases and not to burns. Fire produces poisonous gases that can spread rapidly and far from the fire itself to claim victims who are asleep and not even aware of the fire. Even if residents awaken, the effects of exposure to these gases can cloud their thinking and slow their reactions so that they cannot make their escape. This is why it is so crucial for you and your family to have sufficient warning so that you can all escape before your ability to think and move is impaired. In addition, more than half of fatal fires in homes occur when people are asleep - this represents only a third of a 24-hour day. Therefore, any fire protection system must be able to protect people who are asleep in their bedrooms when fire starts.

Furthermore, nearly half the people killed in home fires each year are either preschool children or adults 65 years old or older. Add people with physical, mental, or emotional handicaps, and it is clear that home fire protection must be designed for people with limitations. That is why every fire safety program should include provisions for people with special needs.

Children and Fire

Children playing with matches or lighters is a leading cause of home fires and one in which the children and others present are often hurt. Children have a natural curiosity about fire and are tempted to play with matches or lighters left within their reach. In many cases, children who start fires have a history of fire setting. Many fire departments offer counseling programs for juveniles who set fires. If your child is setting fires, you should contact your local fire department for information about counseling before the situation gets out of hand and your child gets hurt. Nevertheless, the most important thing you can do is to keep all matches and lighters out of the sight and reach of children. Store them up high, preferably in a locked cabinet.

Even though they have a natural curiosity about fire, children may become frightened and confused in a fire and hide rather than escape to safety; especially if they started the fire. Children are often found hiding in closets or under beds where they feel safe. Therefore, it is crucial for your child's safety that you hold fire drills in the home at least twice a year to let them practice the right things to do in a fire emergency.

Clothing fires are a significant cause of fire injuries to children (and to adults too).They set their clothes on fire by getting to close to heat sources such as open fires or stoves, or when playing with matches or lighters. Here too, the best defense is a respect for fire and training in what to do if their clothes do catch fire. Their natural reaction is to run - which will make the situation worse. STOP, DROP, and ROLL is taught as the correct action and has saved many lives in clothing fires. The moment clothes start to burn, stop where you are, drop to the ground, cover your face with your hands and roll repeatedly to smother the flames.

Of course, young children should never be left alone in the home. Even if they don't play with fire, unattended children can accidentally start a fire by attempting to cook something or by using a heater or electrical appliance in the wrong way. All too often, tragic fires occur when young children are left unattended, for even short periods.

Children's Sleepwear

In the 1970's, the hazards of accidental ignition of sleepwear on young children were addressed through federal legislation. The Flammable Fabrics Act required that children's sleepwear (sizes 0-6X) be flame retardant. In a short time, this had a dramatic impact on deaths and injuries reducing them by 95%.

Recently, an increase in injuries has been reported among children sleeping in garments classified as "daywear" such as tee shirts and jerseys. These garments look sleepwear but are not fire retardant. The only way to tell the difference is by careful examination of the garment label. Therefore, parents should be careful to buy only fire retardant sleepwear for their children in order to enjoy the fire safety benefits of these garments.

Fire and Older Adults

The risk of death from fire for Americans age 65 and over is two times greater than the risk for adults under 65, and hospital stays of more than 40 days are common for older burn victims. Thus, older people need to be especially careful with fire. People can become victims of fire by falling asleep smoking, either in bed or in a favorite chair, especially after consuming alcohol or taking medication. Ashtrays emptied before smoldering materials are completely out also start a number of fires in homes of smokers. Cooking is a major cause of fire injuries among older persons when loose fitting clothing is ignited as the wearer reaches over a hot burner, or slips and falls onto the stove.

A fire can engulf a structure in a matter of minutes. Understanding the basic characteristics of fire and learning the proper safety practices can be the key to surviving a house or building fire.

BEFORE a fire starts ...

  • Install smoke detectors. Check them once a month and change the batteries at least once a year.
  • Develop and practice an escape plan. Make sure all family members know what to do in a fire. House fires begin with a bright flame then quickly generate a black, choking smoke. It is nearly impossible to see through a thick cloud of smoke, so fire drill participants should practice evacuating buildings with their eyes closed.
    • Draw a floor plan with at least two ways of escaping every room. Choose a safe meeting place outside the house.
    • Practice alerting other household members. It is a good idea to keep a bell and a flashlight in each bedroom for this purpose.
    • Practice evacuating the building blindfolded. In a real fire situation, the amount of smoke generated by a fire will most likely make it impossible to see.
    • Practice staying low to the ground when escaping.
    • Feel all doors before opening them. If the door is hot, get out another way.
    • Learn to stop, drop to the ground, and roll if clothes catch fire.
  • Post emergency numbers near telephones. However, be aware that if a fire threatens your home, you should not place the call to your emergency services from inside the home. It is better to get out first and place the call from somewhere else.
  • Purchase collapsible ladders at hardware stores and practice using them.
  • Install A-B-C type fire extinguishers in the home and teach family members how to use them.
  • Do not store combustible materials in closed areas or near a heat source.
  • Keep the stove area clean and clear of combustibles such as bags, boxes, and other appliances. If a fire starts, put a lid over the burning pan or use a fire extinguisher. Be careful. Moving the pan can cause the fire to spread. Never pour water on grease fires.
  • Check electrical wiring.
    • Replace wiring if frayed or cracked.
    • Make sure wiring is not under rugs, over nails, or in high traffic areas. Do not overload outlets or extension cords.
    • Outlets should have cover plates and no exposed wiring.
    • Only purchase appliances and electrical devices that have a label indicating that they have been inspected by a testing laboratory such as Underwriter's Laboratories (UL) or Factory Mutual (FM).
  • Contact your local fire department or American Red Cross chapter for more information on fire safety.

DURING a fire ...

  • Get out as quickly and as safely as possible. Use the stairs to escape instead of elevators.
  • When evacuating, stay low to the ground. If possible, cover mouth with a cloth to avoid inhaling smoke and gases. The heat from a fire can melt clothes and scorch the lungs in a single breath. At floor level, temperatures average about 90 degrees Fahrenheit, but at eye level rise to 600 degrees.
  • Close doors in each room after escaping to delay the spread of the fire.
  • If in a room with a closed door:
    • If smoke is pouring in around the bottom of the door or it feels hot, keep the door closed.
    • Open a window to escape or for fresh air while awaiting rescue.
    • If there is no smoke at the bottom or top and the door is not hot, then open the door slowly.
    • If there is too much smoke or fire in the hall, slam the door shut.
  • Get out of the building before phoning for help. Call the fire department from a location outside the house.
  • If you can't get out, get someone's attention
    • Yell and scream
    • hang a sheet from the window
    • Stay low, there is less smoke and poisonous gasses close to the floor

Once You're Out, Stay Out!

Once you have made your way out of a burning building you may already be suffering the effects from lack of oxygen.

  Oxygen Level  
21%  Normal Atmospheric Level
19.5%  Minimum Healthful Level
15-19% Decreased Stamina and Coordination, also may induce early symptoms described below
12-14% Breathing rate increases with exertion, increase in heart rate. Impaired coordination, perception, and judgement
10-12%  Breathing further increases in rate and depth, lips turn blue. Poor judgement.
 8-10% Mental failure, fainting, unconsciousness, nausea, and vomiting.
 6-8% Fatal after 6-8 minutes.
4-6% Coma in 40 seconds, convulsions, respiration ceases, and death.

One of the major effects of lack of oxygen is the impairment of judgement. You may not realize it, but the possible exposure of lack of oxygen on the way out may impair your ability to think clearly and rationally. Even if you are not affected, others who escaped with you may display this impair-ment of judgement. IT IS IMPORTANT TO PREVENT OTHERS FROM RE-ENTERING!

Another hazard which exists in a burning building is the presence of toxic gases. Carbon Monoxide is a main by-product of fire. It is odorless, colorless, and tasteless. In high concentration it can immediately cause unconsciousness and sub-sequent death. Even in moderate amounts carbon monoxide can cause impairment of mental func-tions much similar to the lack of oxygen.

Fire itself is a serious hazard in that it can cause fatal or debilitating burn injuries. A building fire can generate heat upwards of 1500° F. Keep in mind that water boils at 212º F, and that most foods are cooked in temperatures of less than 500° F. There is the possible danger of flashover where a room is immediately engulfed in flames in an explosion-like reaction.

Gas mains, propane tanks, and even small arms ammunition can explode causing serious injury.

The structural integrity of the building can be affected during fire. Ceilings and walls can collapse on top of you, the floors can fall from underneath your feet, and other structures such as stairways and porches can collapse.

Often electrical lines can become exposed in-side the building and fall from outside connections to the ground on the exterior of the building. This can result in electrocution.

Go to a safe place (preferably prearranged) far enough away from the building in case of collapse or explosion and perform a head count of those who were in the building with you (family members or co-workers).

If someone is missing it is critically important that this be conveyed to arriving Firefighting Personnel. Tell them who and how many people are missing and where they were last seen. "DO NOT GO BACK IN AND TRY TO FIND THOSE MISSING"

Seek medical care if you or any others who escaped from the buring building are injured. Keep in mind that the symptoms of lack of oxygen and/ or exposure to toxic gases can closely resemble those of alcohol intoxication, Get these people immediate medical attention.

Seek shelter from the elements in a safe neighboring building, expecially in the cold, rain, and extreme heat.

Ask Firefighting Officials or a neighbor to notify insurance company, nearby relatives or the Red Cross to arrange lodging (if applicable).

If you are not going to remain in the building, make sure your property is secure. Ensure the police are aware of the building being unattended. Lock up or board up open windows and doors.

One of the greatest hazards to life that exist in a building fire of any magnitude is the lack of sufficient oxygen. Oxygen not only is essential for human life, but also is key to supporting the life of the fire. When fire and humans compete for the limited amount of oxygen within a burning building, fire always wins! Most fire fatalities are caused because of this. It is often referred to as death from smoke inhalation but put in much simpler terms it is death by suffocation.

The dangers of oxygen displacement in a burning building as well as other hazards including the presence of toxic gases, the fire itself, the risk of explosion, building collapse, and electrocution make re-entering a burning structure a dangerous, if not deadly proposition.

AFTER a fire is out ...

  • Call 911. Give first aid where appropriate. Seriously injured or burned victims should be transported to professional medical help immediately.
  • Stay out of damage buildings. Return home only when local fire authorities say it is safe.
  • Look for structural damage.
  • Discard food that has been exposed to heat, smoke, or soot.
  • Contact your insurance agent. Don't discard damaged goods until after an inventory has been taken. Save receipts for money relating to fire loss.

The U.S. Fire Administration has more information on fire safety and firefighting.

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