Edd Ulushack fire safety cartoonist

Oh The Stuff We Were Never Taught in Fire Safety

Fire Safety – What Do You Know?

At community events that some of us have attended (you have right!?) well the fire prevention teams capture our attention with a lot of interesting life safety topics and demonstrate skills firefighters know on how to fight fires and rescue people. Does this get us thinking how these skills may save our life one day. Or is there more?

Most of the common fire safety messages in public education presentations are facts we should know so that we don’t:

  • Don’t leave the stove unattended.
  • Don’t fall asleep without snuffing out the candle.
  • Don’t plug in lamps with frayed cords.
  • Don’t use an electrical device if liquid’s been spilled on it.
  • Don’t dump cigarette ash into the trash.
  • Don’t smoke cigarettes in the first place.
  • Don’t run around if our clothes catch on fire.
  • And stuff.

If lucky we can participate in more advanced fire safety talks with OTHER items that enhance our knowledge, like:

  • Did you know that fire makes water? Crazy, right? If you put a cold spoon over a flame, water vapor will condense on the metal. Hence Fire makes water but not enough to put out the flames.
  • The deadliest fire in American history took place April 27, 1865. It occurred on the steamship “Sultana.” The boilers exploded and the ship was 6 times over capacity, which is not a good combination. The death toll? 1,547
  • The color of a flame is influenced by the oxygen supply. Low-oxygen flames give off a yellow glow while high-oxygen flames burn blue.
  • The more oxygen, the hotter the flame. An oxyacetylene welding torch, which is pure oxygen plus acetylene, burns at over 5,500 degrees Fahrenheit. You can’t get much hotter than that.
  • A house fire will double in size every minute.
  • Spontaneous combustion CAN happen. There are some fuel sources that generate their own heat, sometimes by rotting. This can cause spontaneous combustion to occur, so be careful.
  • The Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed 80 percent of the city, subsequently ending an outbreak of the bubonic plague.

Anyone, who gets hired on at the fire department, learns about fire chemistry! All firefighters know the fire triangle, fire gases, heat, thermal layer, smoke etc. They know how homes are built air-tight, that today’s plastics and materials quickly produce more deadly gases.This is common knowledge that anyone working in the fire service knows and that every other person in the public needs to know. ~Rita Paine, Fire Service Instructor

Have you ever been involved in fire safety lessons where they present topics that really spark the imagination, like say:

Dust collection

Dust builds up quickly and can make the perfect kindling — especially clumps that accumulate near electrical sockets and appliances. All it takes is one errant spark to light up a dust bunny before it spreads to nearby curtains or upholstery.

Whenever you sweep floors or dust furniture, pay special attention to vulnerable areas, like around electronics, the washing machine and dryer, and the refrigerator. In addition, don’t ignore hard-to-reach places where dust has likely collected for some time, including behind shelves, atop ceiling fans, underneath the bed, and behind dressers.

Dead, decaying flowers

Although rare, dead flowers can set off a blaze … and do. Back in 2010, such a case occurred at a home in Little Rock, Arkansas. Dead flowers left in a plastic pot on a sunny porch erupted in a fire that caused $20,000 in damages. Similarly, investigators of a 2012 house fire in Des Moines determined the ignition source to be a wooden pot of dried-up dead flowers and mulch on a hot day. As a matter of fact, all it takes is some parched organic material (such as flowers, plants, or even compost) plus soaring temperatures to create the right conditions for spontaneous combustion. Additionally, chemicals and nitrates make an inferno all the more plausible. (Personal anecdote: a friend of mine once came home to firefighters putting out a fence blaze ignited by a compost bin.

Piles of old newspapers

Believe it or not, stacks of old newspapers left near gas and propane containers are the culprit of many fire damage claims. A clutter of paper near a vent, space heater, or electrical socket also runs a major risk of starting a fire.

Glass fixtures

You know how magnifying glasses can focus sunlight to burn holes through paper or help start a campfire? Well, household glassware can have the same effect. Between 2010 and 2015, the London Fire Brigade recorded 125 fires caused by glass fixtures (7 of which happened in the winter). And since London isn’t a sun-clad destination to begin with, those numbers are remarkable. Be mindful of where you keep your fish tank, mirror, glass high heels, or crystal ball — they may not bode well near a window or skylight.

Oil-stained linens and clothes

Clothes, sheets, or cleaning rags that are stained with cooking oil, grease, gasoline, or cleaning agents can run the risk of causing a fire when run through the dryer. What’s more, oil-stained towels have been known to spontaneously combust after they’ve been taken out and folded. Anything that’s suffered stains like these may need to be cycled through the wash a few times to ensure there are no flammable remnants. Consumer Reports recommends not using liquid fabric softener, since combustibility tests show they actually expedite the burning process. As a safe alternative, they suggest using dryer sheets.

  • Fire is an event, not a thing. Heating wood or other fuel releases volatile vapors that can rapidly combust with oxygen in the air; the resulting incandescent bloom of gas further heats the fuel, releasing more vapors and perpetuating the cycle.
  • Most of the fuels we use derive their energy from trapped solar rays. In photosynthesis, sunlight and heat make chemical energy (in the form of wood or fossil fuel); fire uses chemical energy to produce light and heat.
  • Earth is the only known planet where fire can burn. Everywhere else: Not enough oxygen.
  • Conversely, the more oxygen, the hotter the fire. Air is 21 percent oxygen; combine pure oxygen with acetylene, a chemical relative of methane, and you get an oxyacetylene welding torch that burns at over 5,500 degrees Fahrenheit—the hottest fire you are likely to encounter.
  • So candle flames are blue at the bottom because that’s where they take up fresh air, and yellow at the top because the rising fumes from below partly suffocate the upper part of the flame.
  • Because wax—like most organic materials, including wood and gasoline—contains hydrogen, which bonds with oxygen to make H2O when it burns. Water comes out your car’s tailpipe, too.
  • The Black Dragon Fire of 1987, the largest wildfire in modern times, burned some 20 million acres across China and the Soviet Union, an area about the size of South Carolina.
  • Haystacks, compost heaps, and even piles of old newspapers and magazines can also burst into flame. A good reason to recycle DISCOVER when you are done.

What seems to be missing in most public education lessons is the very basic fire science facts that every citizen deserves to know. Considering that people are on their own until the fire department arrives wouldn’t it be great if they understood basic fire science so they don’t waste time looking for the cause of the fire or gathering all their belongings etc (thinking they have time). Simple, basic fire science knowledge would give people the understanding as to WHY smoke alarms, home escape plans, home escape ladders, and why taking fire prevention measures is imperative in their lives. The first 5 minutes of a fire event is critical for life safety! People have to know how to take care of themselves, and know what to expect from a fire and its by-products. ~Rita Paine, Fire Service Instructor

Be in the know. Even the items we didn’t learn about smoke detectors can be interesting;

  • Ionization or Photoelectric. Ionization alarms may respond slightly faster to flaming-type fires, while photo-electric alarms may be quicker at detecting slow, smoldering fires. Because the two types operate differently and are better at detecting different kinds of fires, it’s suggested you either install both types or buy detectors that feature both ionization and photoelectric smoke alarms.
  • Composition.  All smoke detectors consist of two basic parts: a sensor to sense the smoke and a very loud electronic horn to wake people up.   There are even special alarms that have strobe lights for those with hearing impairments.
  • Tampering. Homeowners or tenants can be fined for tampering with or disabling a smoke alarm, this even includes removing the battery.
  • All smoke alarms, whether battery operated or electrically wired should be replaced if they are more than 10 years old because they lose their sensitivity over time.  And it’s recommended batteries be replaced once a year
  • Location.  Install smoke alarms on your ceilings rather than walls, because smoke rises, and that gives you the earliest possible warning. Follow the manufacturer’s directions for optimum placement.

Of course everyone reading this have gone through our homes, room by room, being sure to reduce fire hazards (you have right!?):

  • Electrical cords and outlets: Don’t overload outlets. Replace frayed or damaged cords. Don’t run cords under the carpet as they can overheat and catch fire.
  • Oven/Stove: Clean grease from the oven to prevent grease fires. Potholders, curtains and towels can catch fire, so keep them away from burners. Never leave cooking food unattended.
  • Matches, lighters and candles: These are a major cause of children’s deaths. Keep them out of reach and out of sight of children, preferably locked up. Always blow out a candle before you leave the room or go to sleep.
  • Fireplace: Use a metal screen or glass door in front of the fireplace. Have fireplaces and chimneys inspected and cleaned once a year.
  • Space heaters: Avoid using electric and kerosene heaters. If they must be used, keep them away from clothing, bedding, curtains and furniture. Always turn them off and unplug them when you leave the room or go to bed. Make sure kerosene heaters are well ventilated to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Furnace: Have it inspected once a year. Do not store anything near it that could catch fire.
  • Dryer: Lint can catch fire, so clean it from the dryer’s filter after every load.
  • Paint, paint thinner, gasoline, propane, kerosene and ammonia: Store flammable liquids in their original containers, with tight-fitting lids. Store them away from heaters and out of children’s reach, ideally locked up in a shed outside the home. Never use gasoline as a cleaning agent.
  • Children’s pajamas: Make sure children’s sleepwear is flame-retardant or close fitting.
  • Doors and windows: Keep them clear of furniture and stored boxes. Make sure they can open easily in the event of fire.

And OOOOOOOH yes I’ve been there as an educator and is it ever hard to keep an audience’s attention, especially if they have heard nothing else but the common don’ts before in the public safety messaging. What we are being taught or not tends to be dependent upon several factors, like; whether the fire department has the time, funding, resources, and human capital to be out teaching all ages and walks of life, and not just at Fire Prevention Week but solid programs all year long! For public education to have a lasting impact it involves more than information sharing or telling people what to do like get smoke alarms, have a home escape plan, stop drop and roll, and prevent fires. Of course this is good information but the public needs to understand fire and the dangers attached to it.

What has this article taught you? Would you like to test your knowledge now?

About the author: Tracy Last Verified icon 5

I've been an entrepreneur my whole adult life, starting out providing educational materials for prevention programs. Now, I am a Social Entrepreneur, Founder and Chief Inspiration Officer at Fire-ED Interactive Community For Eliminating Preventable Fires. Having worked closely with many fire and life safety educators in my 25 year career I became peculiar passionate of the role they play as teachers of prevention education. This education, while critical, is not being taught in schools or most homes. With fire dept budgets cuts it's always public education first to go. This poses a risk to public safety therefore it is important to step up as a community to improve and continue these programs.

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