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Fire expert: Prevent home fires during the holidays – and beyond

fire prevention tips The winter months bring the busy holiday season – and they also bring an increased danger of home fires. Home fires occur most frequently in December and January because of cooking fires and the misuse or misplacement of heating equipment such as space heaters.

According to the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA), there were 365,000 home fires in 2012, resulting in 2,380 deaths.

Tragically, the deaths that occur from home fires are often preventable – in 2005, the NFPA reported that 74 percent of home fire deaths resulted from homes with no smoke alarms or no working smoke alarms. spoke with James Pharr, a retired fire marshall and professor of Fire Safety and Para-Medicine Sciences at Eastern Kentucky University, about how you can keep your home and family safe from fire during the dangerous holiday period – and throughout the year.

What is the most common cause of fires in the average U.S. home?

Common causes include smoking materials improperly disposed of and cooking fires.

Do you have tips on how people can practice good fire safety in their homes?

The main things to look for are things that might catch on fire. Fire requires fuel (such as wood furniture), heat and air -- the fire triangle.

Just pay attention to what you're doing -- for example, make sure that when you're cooking, don't go off and do other things, which we're prone to do in today's society.

Multitasking sometimes doesn't work quite as well when we have heat involved.

Why is home insurance really important if a fire occurs? What will it do to help the people -- and home -- affected?

Often, people don't understand the role insurance plays following a fire -- that most of the time, insurance does help the people recover.

The owners of property -- whether the building or contents -- will want to return to a normal lifestyle if their home is destroyed, and (without insurance) they don't have any way to replace critical things.

Obviously, you might lose some things that have sentimental value -- those things can't be replaced.

If a fire breaks out in your home, what's the first thing you should do?

Leave the house. One of the things people try to do is fight the fire. If it's a very small fire, they can put a pan or a lid on a pot (on the fire to stop it.)

Otherwise, get out and stay out. Also, you should install smoke detectors to alert you when it's time to leave. If they go off, don't question them -- just get outside and call the fire department from the outside.

Sprinkler systems are very effective in controlling fires and residential sprinkler systems. They're not actually intended to extinguish the fire, although many times they do. Their main purpose is to control the fire enough for people to get outside.

I think if we could install sprinklers in all buildings, especially houses, we could cut the fire death rate.

fire prevention tips pic Once, I was cooking something in the toaster oven and it started to flare up because of the oil that was in there. It was flaring up and if I tried to open the toaster oven, it would get bigger, so I just left the door closed. Luckily it didn't turn into something major, but in that instance, what's the best thing to do?

If you have a fire extinguisher handy, use it. If not, just back away. One of the things to be very careful about with the small-appliance fires -- like a microwave, toaster oven or an oven -- is that they're made to hold heat.

If you could put out the fire from the outside with an extinguisher, that's great. When you have an oven fire in your household range, close the lid or close the door, and turn the heat down. You'd be surprised how quickly that fire will start to die down.

If that doesn't work, you should call the fire department.

What can you do to protect your pets in the event of a house fire?

A lot of folks won't like my answer: Get out.

If the sprinklers in your building are going off, try to get the pets out then. Often, people will go back to get their pets, and I understand their emotional attachment to the animals -- but I place a much greater value on human life. Get out, stay out.

And if you want to ensure your pets are protected, install sprinkler systems so you can have the time necessary to get your pets. Sprinkler systems will typically do a really good job of protecting the property while they're protecting lives.

What structural improvements or technology exists to mitigate fire damage to your home?

Sheet rock and flame-retardant materials for wall awnings go a long way to mitigate fire damage.

What's happening today is we're building structures out of lighter-weight material. We're using composite and engineered lumber, which has a lower mass than what we've used before, so buildings don't withstand fire as long.

Designing buildings for the ultimate possibility, not probability, that the building could catch on fire is essential to saving the building itself.

That said, if we save all the people and the building is burned, it's actually a good day.

What are some things a renter should pay attention to when renting an apartment or house?

Make sure it has one or more working smoke detectors. Make sure you test the smoke alarms.  

If you're in an apartment building, it's better to have a system where all the units are linked together in a single system. Often times, each apartment unit has a detector or detection system. But if your neighbor has a fire, you may not know about it until it has spread to other apartments – including your own.

How many smoke alarms should you have in your home or apartment?

The National Fire Protection Association calls for at least one smoke detector outside of each sleeping area (such as one in the living room), one in each sleeping area, and one on each level of the house.

If you have a disability, such as being hearing-impaired or blind, you may need an alarm with flashing lights or have vibrating pillows that can wake you up. 

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