Fire safety 101: Ensuring your home is fire safe

How to proceed should a fire break out in your home.


Ameer Hamza/mifrah Haq October 07, 2012
Fire safety 101: Ensuring your home is fire safe

We all looked on in horror as the Baldia factory fire claimed close to 300 lives on September 11 this year. For days, newspapers and TV channels focused on what was Pakistan’s worst industrial accident, trying to both make sense of the tragedy and to fix blame. Then, as is typical in these cases, the cameras moved on and the columnists found new topics to write about. Missing in this entire debate was how you, as a homeowner, can protect yourself and your loved ones in case a fire breaks out. So to fill that gap, we at The Express Tribune magazine have put together a comprehensive guide to help you ensure that your home is fire safe and also to help show you how to proceed should a fire break out in your home.

HAZARDS TO LOOK OUT FOR:

Kitchen

Most household fires tend to take place in the kitchen. With gas and electricity outlets and the frequent use of oil, the kitchen is a fire hazard waiting to happen. Here are some steps that you can take to ensure safety for your kitchen:

Keep potholders, plastic utensils, towels or other non-cooking equipment away from the stove. These items can easily catch fire.

While cooking, roll up or fasten long and loose sleeves and dupattas etc. Never leave cooking unattended. Put out food fires, or those caused in greasy pans by oil etc, in a pan by covering with a lid and turning off the gas source.

Before going to bed at night, make sure your stove and other small appliances are turned off.

Keep a fire extinguisher near the kitchen and have it checked yearly. Make sure you know how to use it (see our guide to using fire extinguishers on page 20).

If your fridge occasionally gives you a small shock, it might have a tiny leakage current because of worn-out insulation on its internal wiring, especially if it has a defrost circuit. This phenomenon is well-known and can even be quite dangerous when the refrigerator is placed on an electrically conductive concrete floor, especially a floor that’s damp with condensation.

Generators

With long hours of loadshedding across the country, burn wards at many hospitals have received a number of patients complaining of injuries from overheated generators.

Never add gasoline to a generator that is running. Always shut off the generator and let it cool down before refilling it. The length of the cooldown period depends on how long the generator has been running.

Never try to power the house wiring by plugging the generator into a wall outlet, a practice known as “backfeeding”. This is extremely dangerous and presents an electrocution risk to utility workers and neighbours served by the same utility transformer.

If you use a gas generator, make sure there are no leaks in the pipes. To detect leaks, use the age-old sniff test –  if you smell gas, switch off the main supply and have the pipes replaced. Alternatively, you can also check for leak by mixing detergent and water, and applying it over the pipes. If you see bubbles forming, that means that there is a leak at that point.

Gas-fired water heaters/Geysers

Use only one match for lighting the pilot, and do so before you turn on the gas to prevent gas build-up that can ignite and burn your face or hand.

Keep flammable materials away from gas-fired appliances.

Cigarettes, lighters and matches

These items are one of the leading causes of fire casualties at home. Keep lighters, matches, candles and lanterns in a locked cabinet, out of children’s sight and reach.

Teach children safety rules for matches, fires, electrical outlets, electrical cords, stoves and chemicals.

Before emptying ashtrays, make sure that cigarette butts are fully extinguished. Never place a butt directly into a trashcan without dousing it with water first.

Do NOT smoke in bed. Fires have been caused by people going to sleep without extinguishing the cigarette.

Other hazards

Long curtains that touch the floor, especially over a synthetic carpet, are extremely dangerous. They can catch fire and spread it around.

Circuit breakers and fuses do not protect you against all electrical fires. Most electrical fires result from problems with ‘fixed wiring’ such as faulty electrical outlets and old wiring. Lights that flicker or trip the circuit breaker may be due to loose wiring or a light fixture that’s worn out and needs to be replaced.

Use proper fuses in electrical boxes. Do not overload outlets and always use insulated and grounded electrical cords.

Invest in secure plugs that will be able to handle surges in voltage. Cheap plugs readily available in the market will melt in the event of an electrical surge and catch fire.

Keep trash cleaned up in store rooms, basements and garages.

Clothes, blankets, curtains, towels and other items that can easily catch fire should be kept at least three feet from space heaters and away from stove burners.

Check for worn wires and do not run cords under rugs or furniture.

Family fire drills

Practice using your escape route in family fire drills at least twice a year.

Know the emergency number for your fire department. Remember to first get out if there is a fire, then call for help once safely outside. (See our handy guide to emergency numbers on Page 26) Also know which local hospitals have burns units/wards.

Draw a map of each level of your home and show all doors and windows. Find two ways to get out of each room. Make sure all doors and windows that lead outside can be opened without much effort.

Label keys so they are easy to find in an emergency.

Have a plan for everyone in your home who has a disability.

Teach children who are old enough to understand to “stop, drop and roll” (see instructions on the process on Page 21) if their clothing catches on fire so they can help put out the flames and avoid serious burns.

Let children help plan a fire escape route. Choose a meeting place outside the home where everyone will gather, and make sure they know never to go back inside a burning building.

Teach children to always keep stairways and exits clear of furniture, toys and other obstructions that could slow down your escape.

Practice what it would be like to escape through smoke by getting down on hands and knees and crawling below the smoke to the nearest exit. Cooler air will be near the floor.

Once the children have mastered the plan, hold a drill while everyone is sleeping. This will let you know if they will wake up or sleep through the smoke alarm. Even those who wake up may be groggy or move slowly.

MUST-HAVE EQUIPMENT:

Smoke detectors

Put smoke alarms or detectors in strategic locations in your home, such as the kitchen, near bedrooms, and near stoves. Install at least one smoke alarm on every floor of your home, including the basement.

Replace batteries in smoke detectors once a year. Check your alarm twice a year.

For people with hearing impairments, smoke alarms should be connected with an electric sounder and beacon, which provides audio-visual warning.

Install new smoke alarms every 10 years (sooner if one is damaged or not working).

A battery-operated smoke detector is easily available for Rs1,500 to Rs1,700.

Fire extinguishers

The main types of extinguisher that you will come across are water, carbon dioxide (CO2), dry powder and foam.

  oWater: This fire extinguisher is used for Class A fires, i.e. solids only, such as wood, paper and fabrics. It’s not suitable for Class B fires involving flammable liquids, for example paraffin, petrol and oil, or where electricity is involved. It works by cooling burning material.

oCO2: This extinguisher is ideal for fires involving electrical and Class B fires. It does not cool and is not suitable for solids.

  oDry powder: This extinguisher is multi-purpose and can be used on Classes A, B and C (combustible gases) fires. The fire extinguisher works by effectively ‘knocking down’ the flames. This is best suited for homes and offices.

  oFoam: This fire extinguisher is more versatile than water. It can be used for both Class A and B fires but is not recommended for fires involving electricity. This extinguisher forms a blanket or film on the surface of a burning liquid.

A two-kilogramme dry powder fire extinguisher costs between Rs1,500 to Rs2,000.

How to use a fire extinguisher:

Remember the simple acronym PASS to help you use the fire extinguisher effectively. PASS stands for: Pull, Aim, Squeeze and Sweep.

Pull the safety pin from the handle. The pin is located at the top of the fire extinguisher.

Aim the extinguisher nozzle or hose at the base of the fire. This removes the source or fuel of the fire.

Squeeze the handle or lever slowly to discharge the extinguisher. Letting go of the handle will stop the discharge, so keep it held down.

Sweep side-to-side over the fire until expended. The sweeping motion helps to extinguish the fire. Stand several feet or metres back from the fire: fire extinguishers are manufactured for use from a distance.

The fire may flare up somewhat as extinguishing begins due to the flames being pushed away from the burning material (the real target) by the agent and gust of propellant. Do not be alarmed so long as it dies back promptly.

Sand buckets

A fire sand bucket is a steel bucket filled with sand that is used to put out fires. While they are cheap and easy to use, they are not suited for homes and offices. A fire extinguisher is a more reliable option.

Fire blanket

A fire blanket is a highly flame-resistant blanket that can be used to either extinguish a small fire or to wrap around a person. It is made from two layers of woven glass fibre fabric and an inner layer of fire retardant film. It works by cutting off oxygen supply to the fire.

Always remember: fire-proof and flame-resistant does not mean that it is completely immune to fire. It is merely a temporary aid to help you escape harm.

Do not touch the fire blanket or anything underneath it until at least an hour has passed since the fire was extinguished.

Fire blankets can also be used when exiting a burning building. Wrap it around yourself for added protection if there are flames between you and the exit.

Ensure that everyone knows where the fire blanket is stored and knows how to remove the blanket from its canister should you ever need it. It is also recommended that an identification sign is displayed alongside the blanket.

A fire blanket is available at a price between Rs2,000
and Rs5,000.

SMOKE INHALATION:

In most cases, victims succumb to smoke inhalation long before burn injuries occur. Eighty per cent of those who die in residential fires have first inhaled smoke and other toxic gases. A person has less than 60 seconds to escape a smoke-filled environment before inflicting potentially serious damage to his or her health. Fire produces many gases that are highly poisonous. They displace oxygen in the room, which can cause suffocation. Fire also consumes oxygen and this reduces the amount of oxygen available for people to breathe. When a person is exposed to the toxic gases, superheated air, smoke and limited visibility, his or her muscle control is lost, judgment is impaired and the ability to think and act rationally diminishes. Smoke also causes many people to panic, which makes them breath faster, flooding their lungs with smoke. People also panic when they cannot see during a fire. Thus, at a time of fire emergency, it is important to be able to make quick decisions. Swiftly escape by crawling low as smoke rises and there should be less of it close to the floor. That is why smoke detectors are always placed high on a wall or ceiling. Do not attempt to provide CPR to an injured person yourself. CPR must only be administered by people trained to carry out the process. You can contact Red Cross Pakistan for training if you are interested.

How to put out flames on a burning person?
Stop, Drop and Roll!

Follow this most effective process to extinguish a fire on a person’s body, clothes or hair. It consists of three components:

•Stop and calm down. Movement will fan the flames.

•Drop to the ground, lying down if possible, covering your face with your hands to avoid facial injury.

•Roll on the ground to extinguish the fire by depriving it of oxygen.

Escaping a burning building

Drop and crawl

When you are caught in a building with smoke, drop to your hands and knees and begin crawling to the nearest exit.

If you come to a closed door, place the back of your hand against the door. If it is hot, don’t open it because there may be fire on the other side of it. Turn around and seek another exit. If it is not hot, slowly open it but be prepared to slam it closed again if you encounter flames.

Continue to crawl until you get outside.

You may have to use the walls of the building to help you. Keep crawling with your shoulder against the wall. By doing so, you will reduce your chances of getting lost in the smoke.

What to do when you are trapped in a room

If you cannot leave your apartment/office or have returned to it because of fire or heavy smoke:

Close doors behind you to minimise oxygen supply to the fire, but don’t lock them for possible entry by firefighters.

Use wet towels or sheets to seal all cracks and ventilation outlets through which smoke can enter the room. Keep a roll of white duct tape handy.

Move to the balcony or to the most protected room, and partially open a window for air. Do not break it as you may need to close the window if smoke rushes in.

Signal firefighters by waving a white sheet or towel.

BURNS FROM A FIRE:

What they look like

Superficial burn or first degree burn involves the first layer of skin, the epidermis. Think ‘sunburn’ when you think of this type of burn. These usually accompany painful red areas that turn white when touched, moist but no blisters.

Partial thickness burn or second degree burn involves the epidermis and some portion of the second layer of skin, the dermis, depending on the intensity of burn. If it’s largely superficial, the symptoms are painful red areas that turn white to touch. Skin may be darkened, blistered and moist. A deeper burn may or may not turn the skin white when touched. It may make the skin painless if the nerve endings in the skin are destroyed. The skin may be moist but dry if sweat glands are destroyed. Hair over the area is usually gone.

Full thickness burn or third degree burn involves all of the two layers of the skin. Nerve endings, blood vessels, hair follicles, and sweat glands are all destroyed. A severe burn may also damage bone and muscle. Symptoms are painless and touching creates no sensation. Skin may appear pearly white or charred. It is dry but may appear leathery.

Treating burns

Keep a first aid kit at home, which is easily accessible and in the knowledge of all residents. Keep in it a sterile dressing, burn gels, cold packs, gauze, bandages, tape, scissors, and gloves.

First, remove any burnt clothing because it can hold heat on the burn. Cut or tear around it if it has stuck to the skin.

Remove all accessories such as shoes, belts and jewellery because these can stop blood flow to the burn.

For a superficial or partial second degree burn, put the affected area under cool running water for at least 20 minutes. If running water is not available, wet two cloths and place those alternatively over the wound for two minutes each. Do not use ice. This may worsen the injury to the skin. And never use butter, creams, etc. because they can cause infection.

For superficial burns, use an antibiotic ointment meant specifically for burns. You may even use Paracetemol or Brufen for oral pain medication.

Do not attempt to remove blisters at home, especially those on the palms of the hands or on the soles of the feet, because the fluid inside them provides protection for your skin against bacteria.

If the skin is reddened but remains unbroken, as in superficial burns, you can cover it loosely with clean bandages. But if the skin has large and broken blisters, do not wrap it. If you must, do not use a dry bandage. Instead, gently wrap it with a cling wrap or a plastic bag and seek medical help.

What to do after a fire?

Your house may most likely be dark and damp after a fire. Immediately open all windows and doors to let fresh air come in and smoke and chemical fumes from the rescue operation to escape.

Turn off all utility services, most importantly electricity and gas, before you venture inside a burnt room or house. Leaking gas or an electricity spark from a damaged wire may trigger off another fire and endanger your life. Get an electrician, a plumber or a gas engineer to check if damage has been caused to utility supply lines before turning them back on again.

Do not enter the premises unless the fire department ascertains that it is safe to do so. However, if you do want to venture inside, make sure you do so in teams of two persons and wear thick shoes, preferably a hard hat and cover your mouth and nose with a cloth.

Call your insurance company if your property or its contents are insured, and work with their representative to take stock of the fire damage (see our fire insurance guide on page 26). Save all receipts for any money you spend on fire restoration, for you may have to show these to the insurance company for reimbursement.

•Make a list of all your important documents that you could salvage from the fire. And then draw up a list of the documents that will have to be replaced.

Check if the fire has opened up unsecured avenues for thieves into your damaged home.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, October 7th, 2012.

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COMMENTS (2)

Parvez | 11 years ago | Reply

Really useful article. Getting a dry powder extinguisher for the house is not easy. Any suggestions for buying one around the Clifton / Defence area would be welcome.

BZ | 11 years ago | Reply

What an informative piece! Very useful, thanks.

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