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Sober reality: Drunk occupants have high risk of death in house fires

You already know that consuming alcohol can be dangerous if you’re planning on driving a car. But it’s also a hazard in your own home. An Australian study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs shows that people who’ve been drinking alcohol are much more likely to die in house fires than sober people.

The study reported that 58 percent of 95 fire victims tested positive for blood alcohol, often at high levels. And in most cases, the intoxicated fire victims didn’t have obstacles preventing them from escaping.

Why are drunk people more likely to die in house fires, and what can be done to prevent becoming one of those statistics?

drinking and house fire Why it happens

There’s no solid evidence that people who’ve been drinking are more likely to start accidental house fires than sober people. Dorothy Bruck, the study’s lead researcher, says that in a project conducted by doctoral student Michelle Barnett, just five of 75 people who’d been in house fires said that they’d been drinking at the time. “These were all survivors, and none involved any deaths,” Bruck says.

However, Bruck adds, “if the residents are heavily intoxicated and there is a fire, the consequences are high that fatality might result."

This stems mostly from the fact that people who’ve been drinking are less likely to wake up, and may be disoriented and unable to find an exit route. An analysis by the nonprofit National Fire Protection Association found that 40 percent of intoxicated fire victims still were sleeping at the time of death; another 11 percent acted irrationally and didn't seek proper escape routes.

“Even at fairly low levels of intoxication, people who’ve been drinking may not hear their smoke alarm or may misinterpret it,” says Rita Fahy, the fire protection group's manager of fire databases and systems.

The person's cognitive processing can be affected as well. “The individual may have a response like going the wrong way or not recognizing that he’s doing something dangerous,” Fahy says.

The combination of smoking and heavy drinking is even more likely to lead to death in a house fire. Bruck’s study found that victims who’d been drinking were 4.5 times more likely than sober victims to die in incidents involving smoking materials such as discarded cigarettes.

Hazardous activities

So what can be done to make sure that you stay safe when drinking at home?

  1. Don't smoke and drink. Bruck says smoking and drinking at the same time is “a high-risk activity, even in your home.”
  2. Be careful when cooking. “The number one fire in America is a kitchen fire,” says Steven Carter, a spokesman for the Lewisville (Texas) Fire Department. “It’s really easy to get distracted in the kitchen, with kids and pets running around. If you’re under the influence of alcohol, that complicates your ability to focus even more.” If you’re feeling woozy, wait until the buzz has worn off before cooking food, according to Carter.
  3. Don't light the candles. Candles may look pretty, but they're also a major hazard. “If you’re less alert due to alcohol, you may not blow the candles out before you go to bed,” Fahy says.
  4. Hang out with friends. If you’re planning on an evening of heavy drinking, there’s safety in numbers. Bruck recommends always staying with a friend or family member if you've had too much to drink. That way, someone may be able to rouse you if you're snoozing when a fire starts.

Staying safe

Although Bruck’s study shows that people under the influence of alcohol are less responsive to fire safety equipment, it’s important to make sure that you've taken every precaution possible in the event of a house fire:

  • Make sure you've got the right number of working smoke detectors installed in your home. “Even if someone falls asleep while cooking, it should generally wake them up," Carter says.
  • Consider installing an alarm system that sounds in all rooms when smoke is detected in just one room. In the Australian study, Bruck and her research partners say these systems could reduce deaths by 50 percent.
  • Have at least one fire extinguisher on hand and you understand how it works.
  • Look at installing a home fire sprinkler system, which can contain a fire until help arrives.
  • Regularly conduct fire drills. “Homeowners who have practiced an exit drill are likely to revert back to that in the event of an actual fire, even under the influence (of alcohol),” Carter says.

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