In the wake of multiple deadly fires in recent weeks, fire-safety advocates are calling on Americans to take steps to prevent another tragic blaze.
A fire in an apartment building in the Bronx borough of New York City killed at least 19 people, including nine children. The fire happened just a week after another inferno in a Philadelphia row house killed 12 people.
One reason why fires may be turning deadlier is the materials we use to create construct and furnish homes today. According to safety certification company UL, on average people only have three minutes to escape a house fire today, compared to 17 minutes for similar fires 40 years ago. The use of synthetic materials has been shown to accelerate the spread of fires.
“The use of synthetic materials has been shown to accelerate the spread of fires.”
Multiple organizations including the International Association of Fire Fighters and the National Fire Sprinkler Association have urged Congress to pass fire-safety legislation nationwide. And the Build Back Better plan supported by the Biden administration includes funding to add fire-safety features in public housing.
The tragedies over the past few weeks also served as a somber reminder of the need for fire-safety education at a national level. According to data from the U.S. Fire Administration, roughly 3,500 people died in fires on average each year between 2010 and 2019. The rate of fire deaths has trended upwards.
Here are five tips on what you can do to avoid devastating fires
Be mindful of the common causes of fires
The initial cause of Sunday’s fire in New York was a malfunctioning space heater. Heating a home is the second leading cause of home fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association, accounting for around 500 civilian deaths each year. The vast majority of these deaths stem from stationary or portable space heaters, though fires can also be caused by fireplaces, furnaces and wood stoves.
Fire-safety experts suggest keeping a three-foot radius around heating equipment and open fires, to keep it out of the way of children or anything that’s flammable. Heating equipment and chimneys should also be cleaned regularly, and portable heaters should be turned off anytime you leave the room.
The most common cause of fires is cooking. Experts encourage people never to leave the stove on when leaving the kitchen, to check on food regularly, to use a timer and not to cook while sleepy or intoxicated.
Create a fire-safety plan
In Sunday’s fire, residents of the apartment building talked about the confusion and panic that set in when they found the emergency stairwell filled with smoke, and many people are believed to have died trying to exit the building.
Creating a fire-safety plan isn’t just about knowing how to exit your home or apartment building. Families should also review potential hazards that could cause fires and mitigate them while coming up with a plan.
People who live in apartment buildings may not always be better served by immediately exiting the building in the case of a fire. Many high-rise buildings are built to be fire-proof — fires can still happen within these buildings, but they’re designed so that in most cases the flames will remain contained within a single unit. In these case, staying inside might be safer than trying to navigate smoke-filled stairwells and hallways. Of course, if you’re in a room with excessive smoke or flames, getting out is the best option.
If staying put is the preferred option — or the option , then people should be prepared to seal doors with tape or wet towels, turn off air conditioners and open the window unless the flames or smoke are coming from below. In these situations, people should also call the fire department to alert them of where they’re located and the conditions in their apartment, so that firefighters will check on them.
‘Close the doors’
Investigators believed that Sunday’s devastating fire may have been exacerbated by malfunctioning doors. New York City passed a law following another deadly fire in 2017 to require building owners to install doors that close automatically, as this prevents flames and smoke from traveling throughout the building.
While speaking to the press following the tragic incident, New York Mayor Eric Adams cited a public-service announcement from his childhood: “Close the doors.”
When evacuating a building that’s on fire, closing any and all doors you go through can help to prevent the fire from spreading as quickly. UL also recommends closing the doors to bedrooms at night, as research has shown that can protect the occupants of those rooms if a fire were to start elsewhere in the home or apartment.
“With the doors and windows closed, the fire won’t have oxygen to burn and it’s going to stay right there, giving other people in the house more time to get out and also helping protect your property,” said Steve Kerber, vice president and executive director of UL’s Fire Safety Research Institute.
Maintain smoke detectors
According to the National Fire Protection Association, around three out of five fire-related deaths happen in a home that either doesn’t have smoke alarms at all or where the smoke alarms aren’t working properly. Residents of the Bronx building that was devastated by the fire remarked that the fire alarms in the building had malfunctioned in the past, leading some to disregard the alarms at first.
Smoke alarms should be in every bedroom, outside sleeping areas and on every level of the home, including in a basement. Alarms should also be kept at least 10 feet from the stove to prevent false alarms. Alarms should be tested every month and replaced when they are 10 years old or if they aren’t working properly when tested.
Act quickly in the event of a fire
Time is of the essence in a fire, which is why advanced training and preparation is crucial. Remember, saving your life and the lives of those around you is the top priority.
“There is no time for finishing work, Googling what to do in an emergency, or taking social media photos. Human safety should be your highest priority,” noted Fire Safety Australia, a provider of emergency response services and training.