Being aware and prepared about home fire safety is the best way to prevent serious consequences, according to one of the state’s top fire and emergency service officials.
“The goal is to build habits to reduce the potential of a fire in the first place, and then plan what to do if you do have a fire happen at home,” said Tom Cook, Pennsylvania’s acting state fire commissioner. Cook has decades of emergency services experience, including a time serving as the administrator of the State Fire Academy in Lewistown.
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“If we (follow) safe habits, the likelihood of ever having a fire is very minimal. If we have a plan and we practice the plan and what to do if we unfortunately have a fire, that dramatically reduces the impact.
“It’s been proven time and time again that those that plan and practice their plan — you know, both are important — it definitely increases the likelihood of surviving a fire.”
In Somerset County, the American Red Cross, Pennsylvania Mountains Chapter responded to 14 fires last year, providing assistance to more than 40 people.
Similarly, the Salvation Army Somerset Service Center provided fire assistance to seven families in 2022, said Gale Purbaugh, director.
“If they need a place to stay for the night, or if they need food where they are staying — whatever their needs are, we’re happy to help,” she said.
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What causes house fires?
Cooking incidents are the main cause of home fires and injuries, according to the Office of the State Fire Commissioner and the National Fire Protection Association, whose website says that 49% of all home fires reported nationally from 2015-2019 were due to cooking mishaps.
“The number one cause of fires is cooking incidents, (where) people throw a pot on the stove and then they go watch TV and forget about it, those kinds of things,” Cook said.
“So, never leave food cooking unattended, keep pot handles turned to the back of the stove so you don’t knock them over. If something does catch on fire, don’t throw water on it but try and cover the pan (with a lid, to smother the fire).”
Other important safety tips include staying in the kitchen to watch the food as it cooks, setting a timer to remind you to check the food regularly and keeping flammable items like oven mitts, utensils, food packaging and kitchen towels far away from the cooking surface.
The second leading cause of home fires is heating equipment, which accounted for 13% of all home fires reported nationally between 2016 and 2020. Half of those types of incidents occur during the months of December, January and February, Cook said.
Furnaces, fireplaces, wood stoves, space heaters and other supplemental heating devices can all be hazardous if they’re not maintained properly or used according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Cook advises homeowners to follow the manufacturer’s directions when using supplemental heaters, use only devices indoors that are rated for indoor use and to keep anything that’s flammable at least three feet away from the heat source.
“Every device works as long as it’s used as the manufacturer intended,” he said. “We also want to make sure we keep an appropriate distance between those hot devices and anything flammable, and the minimum we talk about with these is three feet. The other key point is to never plug one of those devices into an extension cord, only into an electrical outlet, and plug only one heating device into an outlet at a time.”
Furnaces, fireplaces and even air conditioners should be checked by a qualified service company before you start to use them for the season, he said.
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How to prevent home fires
Having smoke alarms throughout the home — and making sure they work properly are two important things a homeowner can do to be prepared in case of a home fire, Cook said.
He recommends placing one smoke alarm on every level of the home, as well as outside each sleeping area. The devices should be tested monthly and the batteries changed regularly, for example, when turning the clocks forward or backward each year. Some newer smoke alarms have a 10-year operating life and don’t require frequent battery changes, he added.
Somerset County residents who need a smoke alarm for their home can contact the American Red Cross, Pennsylvania Mountains Chapter at 814-262-3170.
Having a home fire escape plan that everyone in the family knows, and can follow, is also a vitally important step, Cook said.
“You have to have and practice a home fire escape plan, so everyone knows how to get out of the house and where to meet afterwards,” he said. “What we’re finding now is as soon as that smoke detector activates, you want to evacuate the home because fires grow so much faster now, based on the materials all being synthetic.
“So as soon as the smoke alarm goes off, you get out, and you need to know multiple ways to leave, in case the way that you typically would get in or out is blocked. If you’re in your bedroom and you hear the smoke detector, feel the door for heat. If it’s hot, crack open the door; if there is smoke in the hallway, don’t try and run through the smoke. You need to know, ‘What is my alternative way out of this room?’”
Families with older adults and those with disabilities may need to consider special equipment, like a smoke detector that uses flashing lights or vibration to alert them to a fire. Information on that type of equipment can be found online at the National Fire Protection Association website, nfpa.org/Public-Education/Fire-causes-and-risks/Specific-groups-at-risk.
Cook added that family members who live a distance away from their loved one may also reach out to ask a trusted neighbor or friend to contact them if their loved one has an emergency.
More information on home fire prevention can be found online at the National Fire Protection Association, the Office of the State Fire Commissioner and the American Red Cross Greater Pennsylvania Region.
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