O’Leary’s cow milked for Fire Prevention Week

By Vincent L. Wilson Chief, Safety and Occupational Health Manager Eisenhower Army Medical CenterOctober 19, 2020

On October 8, 1871, the proverbial legend tells us that when Mrs. O’Leary went into her barn to milk her cow, she was carrying a kerosene lantern. There are other theories regarding how the fire was started and what she may have been doing in the barn.

Let’s suppose that perhaps she was, in fact; milking the cow or performing some other task. The point of this story is that the cow kicked over the lantern that Mrs. O’Leary placed on the hay-strewn barn floor.

Who would have thought that the routine chore of milking the family cow could have erupted into something so catastrophic?

If the story is true, then Mrs. O’Leary’s innocent gesture may have been responsible for perhaps the worst fire that had ever taken place in America within the Midwestern region of Chicago at that time. Historical records indicate that the blaze raged on for two days and caused devastating damage. This horrific conflagration killed more than 250 people, left 100,000 homeless, destroyed more than 17,400 structures, and burned more than 2,000 acres of land. This historical event came to be known as “The Great Chicago Fire.”

This incident was such a profound event that it caused the United States to become keenly aware of the errors that were made during the construction of the city of Chicago. The realization that the buildings within the city were constructed primarily of wood was a contributing factor in its rapid combustion. Additionally, the fact that the dusty streets were layered with sawdust was another circumstance that contributed to the demise of the city.

In 1925, in commemoration of the Great Chicago Fire, President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed Fire Prevention Week as a national observance. It is the longest running public health observance in our country. The recognition of this historical event is unparalleled in the significance of the role in which it plays in conveying the message of fire safety in America.

In honor of Fire Prevention Week, Oct. 4-10, let’s reflect on fire safety and how it can impact our lives, families, homes and work spaces.

Like Mrs. O’Leary, what are some seemingly harmless habits or practices that we do on a daily or routine basis that could be construed as a fire hazard? For instance, do you leave food cooking on the stove unattended? Did you know that cooking is the number one cause of home fires and home fire injuries? Unattended cooking is the leading cause of fires in the kitchen. The other home fire casualties result from heating, electrical distribution, lighting equipment, intentionally ignited, and smoking materials such as cigarettes, cigars, e-cigarettes, tobacco products, etc.

Below is a checklist of some basic tips for fire prevention:


• Heating equipment, like space heaters, are involved in 1 of every 6 home fires. Furthermore, 1 in every 5 home fire deaths and half of all fires caused by home heating occur between December and February.

• Make sure to always keep anything that gives off heat at least 3 feet away from flammable materials or items.

• Never plug more than one heating appliance into an outlet.

• Keep portable gas generators outside and away from windows to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.

• If you have a fireplace, make sure your chimney is checked and cleaned by a professional once a year. Use a metal or glass screen that is large enough to prevent escaping embers.

• Never leave fireplace burning, or heating appliances plugged in, while asleep, in another room, or when you leave your home.

• Insulate problem areas properly to remove the need for a space heater.

• Add extra heating ducts or radiators to areas that are lacking heat.

• If you have children in the house, make sure your coil heater has a fire-proof gate around it.

• Purchase space heaters that have timers and automatic shut off features when tipped over.


• Are responsible for about 9 out of 10 appliance fires.

• Check dryers and all your appliances-for testing labels that indicate you purchased them in safe working order. You may not find them on some older appliances, so consider whether it’s time to replace them or have them checked by a professional.

• Make it a habit to clean out the lint screen every time you use your dryer. It may be an annoyance, but this simple action can save you a lot more pain and aggravation later.

Electrical distribution:

All appliance and electronic cords have to plug in somewhere, so your electrical outlets should be next on your home inspection list.

• Are any overloaded or showing signs of wear?

• Rearrange things so as many appliances as possible have their own outlets, and do not use extension cords to reach more distant outlets.

• This option may be a bit unsightly, but avoid running extension cords under rugs.

• Make sure your lamps are all using bulbs with wattage equal to or less than what the manufacturer recommends as well.

• When it comes to electronics, unplug them when they’re not in use whenever possible.

• Finally, keep in mind that items like televisions and computers need space from anything flammable because they can overheat.

Lighting equipment:

• Use flameless, or battery-operated candles.

• Keep candles at least 12 inches from other objects.

• Place candle(s) on a sturdy place where they will not be knocked or tipped over accidentally.

• Use appropriate holders for candles that are fire-proof and safe.

Smoking materials:

• If you are a smoker, do so outdoors.

• Extinguish cigarette using water or sand.

• Do not hold onto cigarette butts (some people place them in their pocket).

• Do not smoke if you are tired, intoxicated or on other medications as this can cause a lapse in judgement where you can essentially ‘forget’ there is a cigarette in your hand.

(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

This fire prevention checklist contains a few tips that will create a conversation about fire safety with your family and coworkers. Taking the time to do a quick review of how we conduct our daily routines could make all the difference in preventing fire hazards or a casualty.