Tuesday, July 25, 2017  

The 'Human Element' of Fire Safety


The data speaks for itself since 2009, and the news is not pleasant. On a yearly average, fire departments across the United States respond to fires in residential structures 988 times each day and the results are nothing less than tragic. These fires result in 36 fire injuries to civilians each day and sadly, seven of these individuals will die as a result of these senseless, and in most instances, preventable fires.

Closer to home, the news is not much different. The collective 650 fire departments across the Commonwealth of Virginia, responded to a residential fire 73 times each day during this same time frame. These fires resulted in someone being significantly injured in a residential fire each day. Sadly, one of these individuals would die as a result of their injuries every five days, resulting in 64 fire fatalities on an average, each year, since 2009.

Without exception, the vast majority of the fires in residential structures (single and multi-family dwellings) across the United States and Virginia, all share one of four elements: 1) Cooking related fires are the leading cause of residential fires and also resulted in the greatest amount of fire injuries. 2) Fires caused by smoking materials are the leading cause of fire deaths in homes. 3) Heating equipment was involved in one of every five fire deaths in the home and is the second largest cause of fires, fire injuries and fire deaths in the home. 4) There was not a properly operating smoke alarm in 62% of the homes where the fire fatalities occurred.

With the data known, there is one additional element which is not so well defined. Through 35-plus years in the Fire and EMS business, and responding to countless fires in residential homes, this writer feels there is a fifth element; which I simply define as the “Human Element”. This element can be viewed from two distinct angles; a lack of human element or too much human element. Points-in-case; not enough human element-smoke alarms not being checked each month, and quite the opposite, too much human element-someone smoking in bed.

My goal for the reader is absolutely simple; utilize the information in this article as a teaching opportunity for you, family, friends and co-workers. I want you to read and understand the information and then simply include the concepts in your daily casual conversation with those you spend time with. The material is actually very elementary in content, as the steps required to make you safer are very simple and straight-forward; they just require a little bit of a positive “Human Element”. So let’s examine a few simple concepts to make our lives a little more “Fire Safe”.


There is no better way to bring people together than over a good meal, we start our days in the kitchen, we take lunch breaks, we gather in the kitchen for dinner each day and with the holidays upon us, we will spend a greater than normal amount of time preparing meals and holiday goodies. Two themes occur with fires in the kitchen, both with a specific “Human Element”. People have a bad habit of placing a large amount of cooking oil in a pan, turning the burner on high and then doing everything but cook. They talk or text on the phone, take showers, attend to children, fall asleep and some have even been known to leave the house. The second theme is a majority of kitchen fires occur in the early afternoon, (usually coinciding when school let’s out) and late at night (when we have the urge to fry something after a long night out). Both of these items can easily be offset by a few slight behavior modifications. Work with your older children who are hungry when they get home from school and consider other snack options that do not have to be cooked. Concerning your late night cooking antics, as well as when you are cooking a normal meal with oil on the stove top, I offer you one simple suggestion; STAY IN THE KITCHEN. If you do have to step out for a second, carry a cooking utensil or dish towel with you, to constantly remind you that you should be in the kitchen. Additionally, every home kitchen should be equipped with a “Five Pound ABC Fire Extinguisher”, a very inexpensive alternative to a huge fire loss.


The statistic says it all “Leading cause of fire deaths in residential structures”. So what can we change about the “Human Element” to keep you out of this statistic? This one is quite simple; keep all smoking materials out of your bedroom; no exceptions, no what-ifs, PERIOD. Beyond this simple rule, if you do smoke, your first-line of defense is an ample supply of deep glass ashtrays. Place these in the areas where you do smoke and when you dump the ashtrays; discard the ashes and butts in a metal container with a tight fitting lid. One trend in fire origin and cause, which has occurred in residential fires across the nation, is fires originating on decks and porches. A majority of these fires were the result of smoking materials discarded in planters and mulch beds. This trend can be attributed to individuals smoking on their decks and porches and discarding their smoking materials in planters and mulch beds before entering their home. To make a positive “Human Element” change, ensure you have adequate ashtrays in the areas where people congregate to smoke, including decks, porches and next to entry doors.


It is an alarming statistic that heating devices are the second largest cause of fires, fire injuries and fire deaths in the home, when in most instances, we only heat our homes less than half of the year. Where many of us attribute heating equipment in our home to modern and safe systems, a majority of the fires are actually caused by supplemental heating equipment, to include fireplaces, woodstoves, kerosene heaters and electric space heaters. And holding true, the device is traditionally the cause of the fire, but due to some sort of “Human Element”. Examples include starting the fireplace or woodstove utilizing gasoline, not cleaning chimneys on a regular basis, placing heaters to close to combustibles and leaving space heaters burning when we leave the home. These supplemental devices are very safe, but only when utilized following the manufacturer’s instructions. A few simple tips to remember include not placing any portable heating equipment closer the 36 inches from any combustibles, such as couches, overstuffed chairs, bedding or draperies. Always fill your kerosene heater outside of the home and only utilize K1 Clear Kerosene. Never use any type of flammable liquid to start a fire in a woodstove or fireplace. Clean your chimney before the heating season and during the season if frequently utilized.


Unequivocally, a properly operating smoke alarm in your home can be the least-expensive life insurance policy you can purchase. But first, let’s define properly operating and how the “Human Element” fits into the equation, as a smoke alarm is no better than the owner who is responsible for the care and maintenance required. In a perfect world, there should be a smoke alarm installed in every sleeping area in the home, as well as the living areas, garage and attic. You should dust and test your smoke alarm each month, which is best remembered by picking a specific day of the month and sticking to the schedule. If your smoke alarm is powered by a nine-volt battery, change the battery every six months. The newer manufactured smoke alarms are powered by a lithium battery, which lasts up to eight years; if this is the case, you do not have to do the yearly battery changes, just simply replace the entire smoke alarm every eight years; you still need to test and dust each month. If your family needs assistance in determining the proper location to install smoke alarms in your home or you simply need help with installing the alarms, please reach out to the local Fire Department in your community to make an appointment for them to assist you. Please be patient, as your appointment may be interrupted due to 
an emergency response and you may have to reschedule.

One additional item to consider is the companion to your properly operating smoke alarm; a planned and practiced Home Escape Plan; a “Human Element” which can make a great difference in the event of a fire in the home. This plan will direct your entire family on how to react to a fire in the home, to ensure everyone escapes safely. Make this a family project, as input from children will ensure they are invested in the process, ensuring the plan works as designed. Developing a Home Escape Plan is quite simple and only requires a few basic steps. Sketch out your basic floor plan on a sheet of paper; showing all rooms, doors and windows. Draw the primary and secondary escape route from each room. Select a “Meeting Place” in the front yard and designate the location on the plan; this should be an object that cannot move, such as a tree or shrub. Practice the plan on a regular basis with the entire family.

Everyone has a different sleep habit, and in many instances children are harder to wake-up. This is particularly true with the audible tone of a smoke alarm, as children may not respond to the alarm activating. To ensure your children are keenly aware of the audible alarm, I suggest making the practice drill as realistic as possible. Plan the fire drill on a non-school night and activate the smoke alarm to see how your children react to the alarm when they are asleep. If you children do not react to the alarm, you should consider placing an additional alarm closer to the children’s sleeping area. Additionally, if you are in a situation with a hearing impaired child or loved one, there are specially designed smoke alarms which operate with an additional strobe light, as well as attachments, which will shake the bed they are sleeping in.

As stated in the beginning, regardless what the statistics tell us, the “Human Element” truly plays an active part into the safety of you and your family. Please take a few minutes each week to review these critical safety tips, as this small investment of time could surely save your life or the life of a loved one. From the Middlesex, Virginia, Public Safety Family to yours, wishes for a Safe and Happy Holidays.