To protect yourself, it's important to understand the basic characteristics of fire. Fire spreads quickly; there is no time to gather valuables or make a phone call. In just two minutes a fire can become life threatening. In five minutes a residence can be engulfed in flames.
Heat and smoke from fire can be more dangerous than the flames. Inhaling the super-hot air can sear your lungs. Fire produces poisonous gases that make you disoriented and drowsy. Instead of being awakened by a fire, you may fall into a deeper sleep. Asphyxiation is the leading cause of fire deaths, exceeding burns, by a three-to-one ratio.
What to do before fire strikes
- Install smoke alarms. Working smoke alarms decrease your chances of dying in a fire by half.
- Place smoke alarms on every level of your residence: outside bedrooms on the ceiling or high on the wall, at the top of open stairways or at the bottom of enclosed stairs and near (but not in) the kitchen.
- Test and clean smoke alarms once a month and replace batteries at least once a year. Replace smoke alarms once every 10 years.
- Make sure windows are not nailed or painted shut. Make sure security gratings on windows have a fire safety-opening feature so that they can be easily opened from the inside.
- Consider escape ladders if your home has more than one level and ensure that burglar bars and other antitheft mechanisms that block outside window entry are easily opened from inside.
- Teach household members to stay low to the floor (where the air is safer in a fire) when escaping from a fire.
- Pick a place outside your home for the household to meet after escaping from a fire.
- Inspect extension cords for frayed or exposed wires or loose plugs.
- Outlets should have cover plates and no exposed wiring.
- Make sure wiring does not run under rugs, over nails, or across high traffic areas.
- Do not overload extension cords or outlets. If you need to plug in two or three appliances, get a UL-approved unit with built-in circuit breakers to prevent sparks and short circuits.
- Make sure home insulation does not touch electrical wiring.
- Have an electrician check the electrical wiring in your home.
- Store flammable liquids in approved containers in well-ventilated storage areas.
- Never smoke near flammable liquids.
- After use, safely discard all rags or materials soaked in flammable material.
- Check with your local fire department on the legality of using kerosene heaters in your community. Be sure to fill kerosene heaters outside after they have cooled.
- Place heaters at least three feet away from flammable materials. Make sure the floor and nearby walls are properly insulated.
- Use only the type of fuel designated for your unit and follow manufacturer's instructions.
- Store ashes in a metal container outside and away from the residence.
- Keep open flames away from walls, furniture, drapery and flammable items. Keep a screen in front of the fireplace.
- Have chimneys and wood stoves inspected annually and cleaned if necessary.
- Use portable heaters only in well-ventilated rooms.
What to do during a fire
- Use water or a fire extinguisher to put out small fires. Do not try to put out a fire that is getting out of control. If you're not sure if you can control it, get everyone out of the residence and call the fire department from a neighbor's residence.
- Never use water on an electrical fire. Use only a fire extinguisher approved for electrical fires.
- Smother oil and grease fires in the kitchen with baking soda or salt, or put a lid over the flame if it is burning in a pan. Do not attempt to take the pan outside.
- If your clothes catch on fire, stop, drop and roll until the fire is extinguished. Running only makes the fire burn faster.
- If you are escaping through a closed door, use the back of your hand to feel the top of the door, the doorknob, and the crack between the door and door frame before you open it. Never use the palm of your hand or fingers to test for heat—burning those areas could impair your ability to escape a fire (i.e., ladders and crawling).
- If the door is cool, open slowly and ensure fire and/or smoke is not blocking your escape route. If your escape route is blocked, shut the door immediately and use an alternate escape route, such as a window. If clear, leave immediately through the door. Be prepared to crawl. Smoke and heat rise. The air is clearer and cooler near the floor.
- If the door is warm or hot, do not open. Escape through a window. If you cannot escape, hang a white or light-colored sheet outside the window, alerting fire fighters to your presence.
What to do after a fire
- Give first aid where needed. After calling 911 or your local emergency number, cool and cover burns to reduce chance of further injury or infection.
- Do not enter a fire-damaged building unless authorities say it is okay.
- If you must enter a fire-damaged building, be alert for heat and smoke. If you detect either, evacuate immediately.
- Have an electrician check your household wiring before the current is turned on.
- Do not attempt to reconnect any utilities yourself. Leave this to the fire department and other authorities.
- Beware of structural damage. Roofs and floors may be weakened and need repair.
- Contact your local disaster relief service, such as the American Red Cross or Salvation Army, if you need housing, food, or a place to stay.
- Call your insurance agent.
- Make a list of damage and losses. Pictures are helpful.
- Keep records of clean-up and repair costs. Receipts are important for both insurance and income tax claims.
- Do not throw away any damaged goods until an official inventory has been taken. Your insurance company takes all damages into consideration.
- Ask local police to watch the property during your absence.
- Pack identification, medicines, glasses, jewelry, credit cards, checkbooks, insurance policies and financial records if you can reach them safely.
- Notify friends, relatives, police and fire departments, your insurance agent, the mortgage company, utility companies, delivery services, employers, schools and the post office of your whereabouts.