Thursday, October 3, 2002

Making your home safe from fire

Published in the Current

People should take the initiative to make sure their homes are safe from the dangers of fire. According to Cape Elizabeth Fire Chief Philip McGouldrick, there are a number of small projects that can dramatically improve a home’s fire safety. Some cost no money at all, and others are cheap.

• The most important tool is a smoke detector. Make sure you have smoke detectors installed on each floor of a home, including the basement and attic. Take an extra moment as part of a fall project to make sure they have fresh batteries – often when you change your clocks for Daylight-Saving Time. Also be sure to replace smoke detectors older than 10 years, McGouldrick said.

• Knowledge can also help fight fire. Teach everyone in the house how to shut off the electricity at the main circuit breaker, as well as how to turn off natural gas lines or propane tanks around the house. If valves can’t be closed without a wrench, be sure one is handy, McGouldrick said. Turning off sources of heat or explosive gases can prevent small fires from becoming very large ones.

• Adjust hot water heater settings to make sure the water is not hot enough to scald children. Many more people are burned by water that is too hot than by fires, McGouldrick said. As an added bonus, turning down hot water heaters can result in significant energy savings.

• Look again at where you have stored flammable liquids. Gasoline should never be stored indoors. It should be in a safety can outdoors. Oil paint, as well, should be in a metal container and stored outdoors. Never store gas or propane tanks in the basement, as their vapors are heavier than air and can collect in low places for some time before finding a pilot light or other way to catch fire. Propane for grills should be shut off at the tank when a grill is not in active use; if the tank valve is open, the hose could leak, permitting the buildup of explosive fumes.

• Buy fire extinguishers for your kitchen and for other areas of the home where you use heat regularly, such as a workshop. “Sometimes you get a fire and you can put it out before it spreads,” McGouldrick said. Read the directions before using it, and make sure it is properly maintained. They are good for small fires, like flames in a sauce pan on a stove, but should not be used to take on larger fires. For those, get out of the area and call 911 .

• In case you do have emergencies, make your home easy to find. The best way is to ensure your house numbers are clearly visible from the street, especially at night. There are also special light bulbs that can be triggered to flash on and off in a light on your front porch or lamppost, making it easier for emergency workers to find your home.

• Have the local fire department check your woodstove to be sure it is properly installed. Stoves that are not installed correctly can cause fires, even years after they are put in.

• Clean chimneys twice a year or more often if needed.

If you are doing larger projects, you can add fire safety to them without adding significant expense.

• Asphalt roof shingles can dramatically reduce the risk of your house catching fire if embers from a nearby house or brush fire fall on the roof.

• To further reduce the risk of a brush fire spreading to your home, clear the brush for several feet away from the house.

• Consider lightning rods. Many homes in this area are near trees that are taller, reducing the risk of a lightning strike. But, McGouldrick said, homes in newer developments and tall homes on local high ground could be at risk for a strike.

The ultimate in property protection and fire safety is a home sprinkler system, which can be installed using a pressurized water tank outside, or with a connection to a town water supply.

Sprinklers are equipped with bells to alert people to a fire, in addition to their use as fire extinguishers. They are 96 percent effective at putting out fires on their own, McGouldrick said, and 95 percent of sprinkler discharges are on very small fires.