A house fire, particularly in the middle of the night can be one of the most frightening and devastating experiences anybody could imagine. Therefore, it is in everybody’s interest to know and fully understand how to prevent a house fire.
Contents of this article
b). Living Areas.
How to prevent a house fire
A house fire can take many years to recover from. Putting potential loss of life aside it can destroy possessions you will never get back.
Our home is where we make and store our memories. It’s where we raise our family, where we feel safe and secure. It’s also where we store our personal data such as passports, driving licenses, official tax documents – in fact anything that can identify us in any official capacity. Not only that, it is now often a place we work from, or build and run a business.
A house fire not only has the capability to destroy our memories, it can wipe out our entire identity, our income, our work and business, and in the worst cases our loved ones and pets.
A house fire can totally destroy your very existence…
What does a fire need to start?
A fire needs 3-elements to start.
- A source of heat/ignition.
- A ready supply of fuel
This is often referred to as the “Fire Triangle”
A source of heat or ignition could come from discarded smokers materials, candles, matches, lighters, cooking appliances, faulty electrical appliances, faulty/badly installed fixed wiring, overloaded sockets and power points or sunlight through glass for example.
A ready supply of fuel would be anything that would burn. Such items exist in many forms in the home including paper, magazines, furniture, wall art, bedding, clothes, carpets, rugs, even wallpaper.
And the final element is a ready source of oxygen. Very few homes are sealed and secured to such an extent that oxygen would be quickly consumed by a fire and peter out. Most homes have open doors between rooms where oxygen is free flowing. Most of us like to sleep with a window cracked open, and most homes have some sort of draught or place where air seeps in from the outside.
Therefore, oxygen is abundantly available and impossible to restrict in a house fire situation.
Remember though, if you are able to take one of these elements away, you will not have a fire.
Fire or smoke. What kills you first?
The simple answer is that it doesn’t really matter. Both can kill you very quickly, and neither way is any better than the other. Both forms of death are horrific.
In homes, a fire can easily reach temperatures of 500F in under 5 minutes. Fire consumes oxygen, and as the oxygen diminishes the victim is left gulping and gasping for breath while inhaling 500-degree air, which will simply cook a person from the inside out.
The shortage of oxygen and the toxins in the thick red-hot smoke can also render a person unconscious pretty quickly, and then of course the fire itself will claim its victim.
Should you find yourself in this dreadful situation, then the advice is to remember that heat and smoke rise and gather at ceiling height, so stay close to the floor and crawl out to the nearest exit.
That said, the best course of action is to prevent this dreadful catastrophe happening from the outset by being mindful of the dangers and taking steps to prevent a fire from starting in the first place. And if a fire does start, then having suitable measures and plans in place to facilitate an early warning and speedy safe exit.
Tips to prevent a house fire.
Be aware of sources of heat or ignition.
Keep cooking appliances clean and grease free. This includes overhead extractor fans with grease filters.
Store flammable items away from the cooking area including tea towels, oven mittens, paper towel rolls, gas lighters, matches.
Keep grill pans and toasters clean, and don’t overload electric toasters or try to cook anything in a toaster that it’s not designed for.
Heat oil in a pan slowly. Never try to force the oil to heat up quickly.
Be extra careful when dropping food into hot oil (especially food with a moisture content). It can cause seriously hot oil to spit and ignite on other cooking rings.
Never store items such as gas refill canisters and loose batteries in a kitchen draw. The gas canisters can leak (especially when rolling around pressed against other contents in the drawer), and loose batteries can spark against metallic objects.
Most important, never leave anything unattended cooking in the kitchen.
Candles are very popular and add a warmth and ambiance to any room. Unfortunately they are also a direct source of ignition.
Keep candles away from any flammable surface or materials such as curtains, Christmas trees, decorations, wall paper, furniture.
Place candles on a metallic or non-flammable surface or plate. If the candle does burn down and collapse, it will burn itself out without setting fire to the surface it is stood on.
Fireplaces are a common source of house fires, from the chimney igniting through to combustible items placed on the hearth or mantle. If you have an open fire or log burner, be aware of the potential heat that can generate in the chimney.
TIP. Have the chimney swept and inspected on a regular basis by an approved member of the National Association of Chimney Sweeps (NACS.org.uk). There are similar associations in Ireland and throughout the world.
Not only will this prevent a build up of soot and debris that could ignite, it will also prevent blockages from bird nests over the summer, or other debris that could cause potentially lethal carbon monoxide to spill back into the room rather than being vented up and out through the chimney.
Also, it is advisable to place a fireguard in front of an open fire. Not only will this protect children and pets getting too close to the fire, but it will help to contain any embers on the hearth that might fall from the grate.
Table lamps and side lights. How often have you seen a brown scorch mark or discolouration on the shade of a table lamp? This is caused by a bulb that is too hot and too big for the shade. It was more of a common issue with older people requiring a bright reading light. Thankfully it’s not so much of an issue these days with the advent of cool running low energy lamps and the ban on the sale of filament bulbs.
However, it’s still a concern where the elderly may still be using old fashioned 100w to 200w filament bulbs.
Alcohol and smoking. Of course smoking in the home is a personal choice. However, it’s also a high risk pastime, especially when mixed with alcohol. It’s all too easy to drop a cigarette onto the furniture, or lose the tip of a cigarette without realising, especially when under the influence of alcohol. Despite modern furniture being flame retardant to a great degree, often it’s things such as throws, newspapers and magazines laying on or tucked down the side of the furniture that ignites first.
Electric blankets. Modern electric blankets are a lot safer than older blankets and incorporate safety features such as thermal cut-outs for overheating and better thermostatic control.
However, certain rules still apply. Never get into bed or fall asleep with the blanket still switched on. The pressure of the body on the electrical elements can cause them to rupture and ignite.
Replace the blanket if it is showing signs of wear and fraying. Check the flex regularly, especially where it enters the fabric of the blanket. Discard and replace the blanket after 3-5 years, they have a limited life. Also, discard the blanket if it becomes wet or shows any sign of discolouration.
And as a further precaution consider fire resistant bedding if the requirement for an electric blanket is continual for health reasons.
Hairdryers. Electrical appliances with a heating element have the potential to catch fire. Hairdryers should be checked and cleaned regularly. The element requires a full flow of air for it to work correctly and stay cool. If it shows any sign of glowing red, it has a fault and should be serviced or replaced. At the minimum, keep the air flow clear of hair. Never lay the hairdryer on a bed, carpet or rug while it is running. It can draw dust through which may ignite on the element or restrict the air flow.
The same goes for hair straighteners. Never place them down on the bed or other flammable surface while switched on, and make sure they are fully cooled when finished.
Electric heaters. If you use any form of electric heater in a bedroom then it should always be kept away from curtains and bedding. Never drape clothes across the heater, fall asleep with the heater running, or leave it unattended while out of the house. Always keep the heater clean and dust free, and where possible try to use a radiator (solid panel) style of heater, rather than a radiant bar, or one with an exposed element such as a convector or fan heater.
Bedrooms can be dusty places, and this form of heater attracts dust onto the element where it can ignite.
Again, bathrooms have become another popular place for candles. You might think a bathroom is a reasonably safe zone, but the same applies when candles burn down and collapse. Only this time a burning candle can set fire to a plastic bath, draped bath towels and robes, bath mats, window blinds, and decorative accessories.
Also, never use a hairdryer in the bathroom. Not only is it a massive electric shock hazard from damp surfaces and steamy rooms, but also a fire hazard from the same reasons listed above.
Electrical appliances. Check electrical appliances regularly. If there are any signs of damage to the case, frayed or loose wires, or discolouration to the electrical plug then have them checked out or replaced.
Overloaded sockets. Overloaded electrical sockets and extension leads are a major source of night time fires. Never overload electrical outlets with more than they can handle. If you see any discolouration of the socket or extension lead, feel any heat on the surface of the socket, smell anything acrid, or notice any sort of burning to the socket or plug then remove the appliances and have the socket and wiring checked out by a qualified electrician.
Electrical installations. Badly installed wiring and electrical alterations by inexperienced people can be lethal. Not only from an electric shock risk, but from fires starting within a wall cavity, under the floor, in the roof space, or any other hidden void space. These sorts of fires can smoulder for days before igniting. It will cause devastation before you’ve even realised there is a problem.
TIP. Use an electrician who is qualified and approved by the NIC/EIC, ECA, or one of the other recognised trade associations. Alternately, ensure your chosen electrician has suitable NVQ qualifications and at least 3 years electrical experience.
Lastly, ask your electrician to show you a copy of their Public Liability Insurance. (Don’t just take somebody’s word for it)
Boiler maintenance. Gas boilers can be positioned in the house, garage, roof space, and even in bedrooms. Your gas boiler requires regular maintenance. This not only ensures it is burning and operating correctly to prevent the possibility of carbon monoxide building up (Co2), but also to prevent electrical fires.
Your central heating boiler is an appliance full of electrical wiring and circuitry. When a boiler breaks down, it is more often due to an electrical component failure rather than anything to do with the gas supply. Therefore, a boiler service engineer will check the electrical condition of your boiler as well as the gas combustion.
TIP. Only use a boiler service engineer who is qualified and an approved member of Gas Safe (previously Corgi). Again, ask to see a copy of their Public Liability Insurance and Gas Safe card which they should have on them at all times.
Garages, sheds, storage bins and bunkers can all be a fire hazard. How often do we leave appliances plugged in and switched on in garages? From fridges and freezers, to battery chargers and power tools. We just plug in and forget, often for months at a time. But also, how often do we use these areas as a storage point for flammable products?
Without thinking about it, we will store fuel for the lawnmower, half used tins of paint, thinners, BBQ gas canisters. There is enough flammable liquid in the average garage to make Guy Fawkes gun powder plot look like a kids’ sparkler party.
Consider whether these items are worth storing, and if you have to store them, consider making use of a storage bin at the bottom of the garden away from the house.
TIP. Left over paint and thinners after a decorating project. Do you really need to keep them? If not, dispose of them at your local recycling centre.
Petrol for the lawnmower. After the last cut of the season, run the mower until it’s out of fuel. Not only will that stop any fuel going stale in the engine over winter (and preventing frustrating starting problems in the Spring), it minimizes the risk of it catching fire. Any fuel left in the container can be put in your car (assuming it’s a petrol engine and not diesel).
BBQ gas canisters and gas cylinders. Consider returning the canister back to your local supplier once the BBQ season is over. Often they will return your deposit and store the cylinder safely until you need a fresh one for the following summer.
Become Fire Savvy.
Now you know some of the most common causes of house fires, the best way to protect yourself is by preventing one in the first place.
Be candle aware. Consider switching to LED candles. Avoid smoking indoors (including the garage where you may store flammables). Keep a check on frayed wires, damaged electrical appliances, overloaded electrical sockets and extension cables. Only have electrical, boiler and chimney servicing and repairs carried out by qualified and insured trades people. Dispose of left over flammable liquids and decorating consumables, and store gas and petrol canisters safely.
Teach your children and other family members about fire protection. Inform them of the dangers of matches and lighters. Teach them how to cook properly and the dangers of flammables in the kitchen
Emergency equipment such as fire extinguishers and escape ladders should be included in your home to help fight any fires that do occur. Also, plan an escape route and discuss it regularly so that everybody knows what to do and how to get out in an emergency.
Also, check your smoke alarms once a month. An early warning is the best form of defence.
Now that you know what to do in case of a fire in your home, the next step is doing everything you can to make fire prevention a top priority. Consider a home security system with integrated fire protection to provide you and your family with safety and peace of mind.
Common Causes of Fire
Kitchen fires from unattended cooking, grease fires/chip pan fires
Electrical systems that are overloaded, poorly maintained or defective
Combustibles near equipment that generates heat, flame, or sparks
Candles and other open flames
Smoking (Cigarettes, cigars, pipes, lighters, etc.)
Flammable liquids and aerosols
Flammable solvents (and rags soaked with solvent)
Fireplace chimneys not properly or regularly cleaned
Cooking appliances – stoves, ovens
Heating appliances – fireplaces, wood-burning stoves, boilers, portable heaters, solid fuels
Household appliances – clothes dryers, curling tongues, hair dryers, refrigerators, freezers, boilers
Leaking/ defective batteries
Electronic and electrical equipment
Exterior cooking equipment – barbecue
Article written by Paul Chatwin. (AIfireE)
Associate of The Institute of Fire Engineers.
Member of The Institute of Safety and Health.