Sounding Alarm For Fire Safety
October 7, 2011
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala.--It's been said that Redstone Arsenal is much like a small city with amenities and services that support a work force, residential families and visitors.
And with a small city comes all the challenges of keeping its communities and its people safe.
So, when Fire Prevention Week rolls around each year, Redstone Fire and Emergency Services focuses its educational push on the entire gamut of fire safety issues related to the workplace as well as to homes, schools, businesses, industrial sites, recreational facilities, airfields and public buildings. Much of that education deals with "people habits" or "people accidents" that lead to unsafe fire situations.
"We have to be versatile in our education because we have people who are on the Arsenal for all types of reasons and who work, live or play in all kinds of different situations on post," fire prevention inspector Robert Johnson said. "We want people to be aware of all types of fire safety issues, both at work and at home.
"Fire has heated our homes. It's powered our industry. It's made our mode of life possible. But fire is still one of our greatest dangers."
In 2009, U.S. fire departments responded to 362,500 home structure fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association. These fires caused 12,650 civilian injuries, 2,565 civilian deaths and $7.6 billion in direct damage. On average, one home structure fire is reported every 87 seconds in the U.S., and seven people die in home fires every day. Adults 65 and over face the highest risk of fire death.
Fire Prevention Week is Oct. 9-15. This year's national theme is "Protect Your Family From Fire."
"There are many tools that can help people protect their families from fires -- like smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. But with many of these tools, people don't know how to use them, where to put them or when to replace them. We want to make sure they have this information so they can make the right decisions," Johnson said.
During Fire Prevention Week, Redstone Fire and Emergency Services will provide information to Arsenal employees, retirees and families, and will host special appearances of Freddie the Fire Hydrant and Sparky the Fire Dog. The following events have been planned:
• Oct. 11 -- Fire prevention literature will be made available to visitors from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Exchange. A fire department display will include a fire truck from Fire Station 2, Vincent Road.
• Oct. 12 -- A fire engine as well as Freddie and Sparky will entertain and inform young children at the NASA Child Development Center from 9 to 11 a.m. Fire Station 1, Rideout Road, will host this event.
• Oct. 12 -- A fire engine display and a fire safety presentation set for 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. at the Youth Center, building 3148, will teach teenagers about fire safety. Fire Station 2 will host this event.
• Oct. 13 -- A fire engine as well as Freddie and Sparky will entertain and inform young children at the Mills Road Child Development Center, buildings 5600 and 5601, from 9 to 11 a.m. Fire Station 3, Patton Road, will host this event.
• Oct. 13 -- A fire engine display and a fire safety presentation as well as appearances of Freddie and Sparky are set for 4:15 to 5:15 p.m. at School Age Services, building 3155, will teach elementary-age children about fire safety. Fire Station 2 will host this event.
• Oct. 14 -- A fire engine as well as Freddie and Sparky will entertain and inform young children at the Goss Road Child Development Center, building 3145, from 9 to 11 a.m. Fire Station 2 will host this event.
In addition, fire inspectors are available to make presentations in the workplace upon request to the Fire Prevention Branch, 876-7005.
"We get a lot of participation in the events we hold during Fire Prevention Week," Johnson said.
"At the Exchange, we will get all kinds of questions and we ask a lot of questions, like 'How old is your fire extinguisher?' and 'How old is your smoke detector?' When talking about operating fire extinguishers, we use the acronym PASS, for Pull the Pin, Aim, Squeeze and Sweep. To that we add 'Keep your back to the door. Do not cut yourself off from the door.'"
For the younger crowd, the message is simpler.
"We talk a lot with the kids about Stop, Drop and Roll if their clothes catch on fire," he said. "We also introduce them to fire fighters and Sparky the Dog and Freddie the Fire Hydrant to help overcome any fears they might have. We tell them that if they have a house fire, to get out and stay out. We tell them they need to get out as fast as they can, and not hide under their bed or try to find their pet or favorite toy before leaving the house.
"With older children and teenagers, we show them how to use a fire extinguisher. We like to talk about cooking because many of them are learning how to cook for themselves. Talking to them about car fires is also good at this age."
Both at home and in the workplace, the number one source for a fire is cooking.
"I can't stress enough that you should never leave food cooking on a stovetop unattended," Johnson said. "But even in the workplace, this has to be emphasized because our number one problem with people on the job on the Arsenal is cooking in break rooms. People will start to heat or warm something up, and walk away from the microwave, toaster oven or stove, and will not realize a problem until the fire alarm is activated or somebody smells the smoke."
Cooking equipment is the leading cause of home structure fires and associated injuries, and was tied for the third leading cause of home fire deaths, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Unattended cooking was by far the leading cause of these fires. U.S. fire departments responded to an average of 155,400 cooking-related home fires each year from 2005-09, causing an average of 390 deaths, 4,800 injuries and $771 million in direct property damage.
The second source for fires on-post, Johnson said, is equipment failure due to electrical malfunctions. Computers, coffee makers and holiday decorations are among the types of electrical equipment in the workplace that are potential sources for fires.
"If you have equipment that is idle, please unplug it," he said. "If you have computer equipment sitting in a vacant work area, unplug it. Stuff you don't use every day, unplug it. Every piece of equipment has a failure rate, and electrical fires do happen in the workplace. But you can't have electrical fires without electricity. So, unplug it."
When talking to groups about fire safety, Johnson refers to the fire triangle, which shows that the right proportions of the three elements of fire -- heat, fuel and oxygen -- will lead to a fire.
"Equipment can have all three of these elements, but they are not at the right proportion that leads to a fire," he said. "For example, an air freshener plug-in has heat, fuel and oxygen, but the heat temperature used in the plug-in is below the fire point, so it is not at a sufficient level to cause a fire. Even though they are UL (Underwriters Laboratories) approved, plug-ins can malfunction, heat can cause plastic to smolder and you can have a fire. The three things you need to have a fire in your house may already be present."
Another source of workplace fires is improper storage of equipment. Often that means that employees have stored items in unsafe areas, such as in mechanical rooms or near flammable materials.
Discussions about fire prevention often include information on what to do to prepare employees and family members if there is a fire. Sadly, Johnson said, having a fire escape plan at work often doesn't translate into having a fire escape plan at home.
"We have exit drills at school and in the workplace, but it's just as important to have a fire exit plan for home," he said. "In a panic situation, you revert to what you know. If you don't practice an exit plan, then you don't know a plan that could save your life."
According to a National Fire Protection Association survey, less than one-fourth of Americans have both developed and practiced a home fire escape plan. Almost three-quarters of Americans do have an escape plan; however, less than half actually practiced it. One-third of American households surveyed estimated they thought they would have at least six minutes before a fire in their home would become life threatening. In actuality, the time available is often less.
While cooking is the number one cause of fires, heating equipment was the second leading cause of all reported home fires and home fire deaths. U.S. fire departments responded to an average of 64,100 heating-related home fires each year from 2005-09, causing an average of 560 deaths, 1,620 injuries and $904 million in direct property damage
Fires involving heating equipment peak in December, January and February, as do deaths from these fires. Overall, home fires and home fire deaths are more common in the cooler months of the year.
The leading factor contributing to heating equipment fires involves dirty chimneys that are coated inside by creosote, which is highly flammable. This can be prevented with regular cleaning maintenance, Johnson said.
Half of home heating fire deaths resulted from fires caused by heating equipment too close to things that can burn, such as upholstered furniture, clothing, mattresses or bedding.
"All home heating equipment -- including fireplaces, space heaters, wood stoves and furnaces -- should be given a 3-foot combustible free zone," Johnson said. "This means that people, especially children, as well as clothing, blankets and other combustible items should be kept well away from heating equipment."
During 2005-09, electrical distribution and lighting equipment was involved in the ignition of 23,400 home structure fires, on average, per year. These fires caused an average of 390 deaths, 970 injuries and $822 million in direct property damage. A reported 41 percent of home electrical fires involved electrical distribution or lighting equipment while 53 percent involved other known types of equipment, including ranges, washers/dryers, fans and space heaters.
But not all home fires are caused by modern-day equipment. Candles are also a home fire threat. During 2005-09, candles caused an average of 12,900 home fires, 140 home fire deaths, 1,040 home fire injuries and $471 million in direct property damage. On average, there are 35 home candle fires reported per day.
Roughly two-fifths of these fires started in the bedroom, and more than half of all candle fires start when things that can burn are placed too close to the candle.
The number one cause of fire deaths is smoking materials. U.S. fire departments responded to an average of 18,900 smoking-related home fires each year from 2005-09, causing an average of 660 deaths, 1,270 injuries and $492 million in direct property damage.
"Cigarette smoking and the materials that go with it -- matches and lighters -- are big concerns," Johnson said. "These materials cause fires because someone is playing with them, they are being used carelessly or they are left forgotten."
Even when all fire safety precautions are taken, sometimes an act of nature can lead to a fire emergency. Lightning fires happen quickly and often take people by surprise.
"Anything exterior to a house or building that is going into that structure should have a lightning suppressant on it. Most don't," Johnson said. "Most of the time, lightning starts a home fire in the attic where they can smolder and blaze for awhile before the homeowner or a neighbor notices a problem. These kinds of fires are often first reported by a neighbor that sees a roof on fire or fire in an attic window."
While businesses, industrial facilities and public buildings protect people from fire with the use of fire detection and sprinkler systems, it's important for families to protect themselves against the surprise of a fire with home smoke detectors.
"On average, a home should have three or four smoke detectors. No one in the home should be more than 75 feet from a smoke detector at any given time," Johnson said. "Modern-day smoke detectors are interconnected so that if one is triggered at one end of a house, all the detectors in the house will alarm."
Roughly two-thirds of home fire deaths happen in homes with no smoke alarms or no working smoke alarms. About one in five smoke alarm failures was due to dead batteries. Working smoke alarms cut the risk of dying in reported home fires in half. In fires considered large enough to activate the smoke alarm, hardwired alarms operated 91 percent of the time, while battery powered alarms operated only 75 percent of the time.
Deaths from fires have lessened significantly since 1922, when a national fire prevention week was designated. Before 1922, an average of 15,000 people died each year in the U.S. from fire. Today, that number is down between 2,500 and 3,000 people who die in fires while, at the same time, the U.S. population has more than doubled since the early 1900s.
"Awareness does save lives," Johnson said. "But even with 2,500 fire deaths a year that is still a statistic that we would like to reduce to zero. Colder weather brings more deaths by fire. And we lose on average of at least one family a year to a holiday fire. Any loss by fire is too many."