‘Tis the season to add fire safety to the family’s wish list and make the yuletide bright for everyone.
Johnston Fire Department Chief Peter Lamb really doesn’t want to come across as a Grinch during the merriest time of the year, but his safety message is an important one.
“I don’t want to a humbug, but the holidays do present a lot of challenges for fires,” said Chief Lamb.
The chief said that in the last 14 days, a combination of cold weather and the holiday season has led to his department answering calls that included a fire from a space heater and a fire involving candles. He’s hoping to help Johnston residents keep the season filled with joy by reflecting on ways to keep loved ones safe.
Chief Lamb said there were four issues with fires that are important for residents to know: the time and speed of a fire, the toxicity of a fire, the temperature of a fire, and the darkness associated with fires.
“When you watch television shows or a movie and see a fire, it’s bright and it’s orange and it couldn’t be further from the truth. They’re actually very dark because of the smoke,” he said.
The chief recommends that residents keep flashlights handy throughout a home and to know where they are stationed for emergencies. He encourages placement of a flashlight on a nightstand as well in case there is an emergency while someone is sleeping.
“Many of the people who saw video of the Station Nightclub fire suggested that the lights went out immediately. The lights did not go out immediately, they were covered by smoke,” said Chief Lamb. “Flashlights give a measure of control in a fire situation.”
Often people in a fire find themselves in trouble because they misjudge the speed at which a fire can spread. He demonstrated that speed with two short, sobering videos. In one, a recliner was shown to have a small, smoldering fire. Within 30 seconds the ceiling was covered with about a foot of hot, toxic smoke and the flame had spread to the wall. After a minute, the ceiling temperature was nearly 600 degrees and that hot smoke had come down about three feet from the ceiling. After a minute and a half, the room was unrecognizable and filled with smoke, with spontaneous combustion happening throughout the room.
In the second video, a Christmas tree was shown having a faulty electrical cord that caused a fire. Within five seconds, the dried out tree was completely engulfed in flames. By 10 seconds, the room was halfway filled with smoke. The video demonstrated a nightmare before Christmas, one that the chief hopes to prevent.
U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated average of 200 home structure fires per year that began with Christmas trees in 2011 through 2015. These fires caused an annual average of six civilian deaths, 16 civilian injuries and $14.8 million in direct property damage.
On average, one of every 32 reported home Christmas tree fires resulted in a death, compared to an average of one death per 143 total reported home fires. Although Christmas tree fires are not common, when they do occur they are much more likely to be deadly than most other fires.
“People will go back into a house when there’s a fire. My suggestion is to never go back into a house that’s on fire. People usually go back in for something of sentimental value or for their pet. Please, get out of your house as quickly as you can if there’s a fire,” said the chief, who recognized that there would be an instinctual drive to go back in if a family member may be trapped. “If you find yourself in a room with a fire, stay low to the ground. You have about a minute or two to get out in most fire situations.”
When it comes to the heat of a fire, Chief Lamb compared a typical fire to a cooking oven.
“If you were to put your oven on broil, that’s about 500 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature at the ceiling level of a fire is three times that,” said Lamb. “It’s two or three times the temperature of an oven, which is crippling and paralyzing. There’s no outrunning that.”
Toxicity in the smoke is often underestimated. Chief Lamb said that people often feel that they will wake up if there’s a fire. However, smoke from a fire may prevent that.
“The fact is that most of the products in smoke would anesthetize you. It would literally put you to sleep,” he said. “There’s carbon monoxide in smoke. There’s another in the form of cyanide. You’re literally being poisoned by the smoke.”
As a longtime firefighter, Chief Lamb is in the business of preventing fires. But by the time he and his well-trained crews arrive at a fire, precious moments have already passed by. He stresses fire prevention begins at home with a plan and knowing escape routes. He stressed practicing those plans time and again if young children live in the home.
“Fire alarms and carbon monoxide alarms are the key to safety. You need as much warning as possible,” he said.
When it comes to fire extinguishers, Chief Lamb does recommend having them but to still use caution.
“I’m all for that with one caveat: don’t waste time fighting that fire. Get the extinguisher, get out to the door, and then if you can see the fire from the door then do something about it,” said Lamb. “You don’t want to be wasting your escape time, which is so precious; you don’t want to be wasting that fighting the fire.”
Chief Lamb also stressed that inches matter when it comes to fires. He uses a ruler and a yardstick as part of his safety measures and solutions.
“If you light a candle, it should be one foot away from anything combustible and placed on a non-combustible surface. This time of year you see candles in wreaths wrapped around them that are beautiful but can be dangerous,” said Lamb, who added that candles should not be left unattended.
When it comes to heaters, fireplaces, wood or pellet stoves, boilers and furnaces, that’s where a yardstick comes into play. Combustible objects should be kept a minimum of three feet away from those heating sources. He warns that cooking stoves should not be used to heat a home.
Lamb also gave warnings about extension cords, saying that they should be left uncovered by throw rugs or Christmas tree skirts as they can build up heat and cause a flame. He strongly recommended watering a cut Christmas tree daily to prevent it from drying out.
With all the batteries being purchased for gifts this time of year, now is also a good time to check a smoke detector’s batteries and change them if necessary. Those with gas heat are also reminded to keep the outside vents clean from snow and ice to prevent a toxic buildup in a dwelling.
Chief Lamb asks residents to visit www.nfpa.org this holiday season for more information on how to keep families safe during the holidays and year round.
And for those hard to shop for people, Chief Lamb has the perfect gift idea.
“If you really care about somebody, show them and give them a new smoke detector for Christmas,” said Lamb. “Enjoy the holidays and have fun, but be careful.”