18 Fire Safety Tips: From an ACTUAL firefighter

There are few events more tragic than a house fire, especially if it involves the loss of a pet or person. In this article I wanted to give you some basic and practical fire safety tips you can use to keep yourself and your family safe. 

Also, it’s important to note that this article is not sponsored by anyone and I do not recommend any particular brands. Please do your own research on what equipment works best for your budget and your needs.

Use combination photoelectric/ionization detectors

Everyone loves to save money, but this is one place you don’t want to shop on price. Smoke detectors are life saving devices and if that means you have to spend a few extra bucks to get a quality detector it’s always worth it if you need it. 

When it comes to your standard residential smoke detector there are two types. The first is an ionization detector. These smoke detectors work by using two small metal plates along with a small amount of radioactive material to convert air molecules into ions that are both positively and negatively charged.

hand testing smoke alarm

When the smoke from a fire enters the chamber where these ions are it disrupts the flow and sets off the alarm. If you want more information on how these work check out this chart from the NFPA here.

The second type of smoke detector is a photoelectric detector. These work by using a small beam of light inside a chamber in the detector. When smoke enters the chamber it disrupts the beam of light, forcing it to scatter to other sensors within the detector.

When it does the alarm goes off. If you want more information on how these work check out this chart from the NFPA here.

Here is an example of what I’m referring to (note the 10 year battery):

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Place CO (carbon monoxide detectors) near every gas appliance

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a silent killer. It has no taste, smell or color and the only way to know you are suffering from CO poisoning is to feel the effects of it. Symptoms usually include nausea, headache, weakness, dizziness, shortness of breath and more. This means it is important to have a detector to alert you to the presence of CO before you feel the symptoms.

There are two types of residential CO detectors out there. The first is a combination smoke detector/carbon monoxide detector. These are what I have in my utility room near my furnace. The other type is a stand alone carbon monoxide detector that plugs into the wall with a battery backup. 

I recommend that you install a CO monitor in every room where you will have a gas appliance. This means laundry room (assuming you have a gas dryer), utility room (or wherever you keep your furnace, and the detector nearest the kitchen should be a combination detector. 

Here are some examples of CO detectors:

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If you’re unsure CALL!

I can’t tell you how many times i’ve shown up at someone’s house and they say “I really didn’t want to call but I didn’t know what else to do.” 

The fire department is there to serve the public, and we respond to all kinds of calls. This doesn’t mean that anyone should abuse the 911 system, but if you are concerned or think there may be cause for concern in your home please don’t hesitate to call the fire department. We have a lot of tools at our disposal that allow us to check for heat, smoke or gases. 

If you need us, call us. 

Face pot handles over the stove

Most residential fires start in the kitchen, and if you think about it that makes sense. Where else in your home do you have a consistent combination of natural gas, open flame and high heat? 

That said, one of the easiest things you can do to prevent fires in your kitchen is to turn the handles of pots on the stove so they don’t stick out over the edge of the stove. That way it’s far more difficult for you to accidentally bump the handle. 

This is especially important if you have children. As a father, I can tell you kids love to grab for things just out of reach, and if you leave a pot full of boiling water on the stove it only takes a split second for them to grab the handle and dump all of that hot water onto themselves.

Purchase 10 year smoke detectors

Let’s be honest, life can be busy, and if you’re like me (and most other people) changing your smoke detector batteries isn’t at the top of your to-do list. Yes, the fire service tries hard to remind people to change their batteries when they change their clocks, but sometimes life gets in the way.

Introducing the 10 year battery. Modern smoke detectors now come equipped with a sealed 10 year battery. This means if you forget to change your batteries this spring or fall no worries you’re good to go. Yes they’re a little more expensive than your dollar store smoke detector, but for a few dollars per year I think it’s worth not having to worry about your batteries. 

Here’s an example of a detector with a 10 year battery:

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Check your cords

Electrical fires are nasty. One of the simplest things you can do is monitor your cords. For example, I can’t tell you how many homes I’ve been in where they are using indoor extension cords outside, run extension cords under carpeting, or my favorite they will load up multiple power strips on one outlet. 

This is a disaster waiting to happen, so here are a few basic tips. 

  1. Use grounded outlets or GFCI outlets – This is an inexpensive upgrade to your home that anyone can make. 
  2. Do not use ancient power strips – You know that power strip that sits under your desk for the last decade or two? Ya, that one, spend a few bucks to get a new one. 
  3. Extension cords are not meant to be walked on – Never, never, never run an extension cord under carpet. If you need power on the other side of the room hire an electrician to run new wiring in the wall. 
  4. Do not use indoor extension cords outside – In case you never noticed, outdoor extension cords are far more heavy-duty than your standard indoor cord. The reason is because they were designed to be more durable and face the elements.

Ensure every sleeping area has two exits

When I teach fire safety classes I regularly talk about knowing two ways out of your home, bedroom or any other room you may find yourself in. The reason for this is that fire is unpredictable and you do not want to be in a situation where you are trapped in a room with no way out. 

These exits can be as simple as a door and a window, multiple windows or multiple doors. If there is a window or door you don’t use frequently be sure to check it every few months to ensure it is still operational.

Never allow smoking on your house

First, smoking is bad for you and you shouldn’t do it. Second, it makes your house smell and many people are not interested in buying or living in a home that was previously occupied by a smoker. Finally, smoking in your home can be a major fire hazard. 

There are countless stories of people who fell asleep with a lit cigarette and the cigarette started a fire. If you’re lucky enough to make it out alive, you will probably not make it out unscathed. 

Quick story (and a disclaimer: this is gory), I have a friend who worked for a large city fire department who was called to a house fire where this very thing happened. Somehow, this man made it outside alive.

When they pulled up, this man was completely engulfed in flames, running across the street. His clothes had been completely burned off and he was charred from head to toe.

When she looked in the street she noticed something like footprints and when she took a closer look she realized that it was the skin from the bottom of his feet that had melted and peeled off as he ran across the street. 

Please, don’t smoke in your home.

ALWAYS have a fire extinguisher ACCESSIBLE in the home

No fire is “safe,” but most fires start very small and are usually pretty manageable. However, if you don’t have the tools or equipment to deal with during the early stage it can quickly turn deadly. 

A simple thing you can do it purchase a few basic ABC fire extinguishers. These extinguishers will work on most fires in your home and are cheap and easy to use. I recommend you keep one in your utility room, garage and kitchen. 

Here’s an example of a residential fire extinguisher.

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Clean the lint from your dryer

One of the easiest ways to start a fire is to light some dryer lint. The problem is that you probably aren’t looking to start a fire in your dryer. Dryer fires are very common and one of the simplest and easiest things you can do is clean out the lint trap everytime you use your dryer. 

In addition to that, be sure to clean out the vent hose that is used to move the warm air from your dryer to the outside of your home. This is a common place for lint to collect and can be a big fire hazard. The other problem with these lint hoses is that if a fire does start you may not know right away as many of these hoses are tucked behind walls and cabinets. This means a small fire can quickly grow and get out of hand. 

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Check your insurance

If you’re like most people, you purchase your home insurance every year and don’t pay much attention to the benefits in the policy. Please make sure your policy is enough to cover the potential damage to your home. 

I have seen so many homeowners devastated as they stand on the sidewalk and watch their home go up in flames only to realize that they used cutrate home insurance. I know it may not seem important now, but trust me, if your were to ever have a house fire you will want good insurance that makes it easy to file a claim.

Pre-plan your “what if” with family members/friends ahead of time

You may think you know how you would act in an emergency, but what you think and what you do rarely are the same. That is why it’s so important for you to pre-plan with your family or roommates exactly what you would do in the event of a fire or other emergency. 

This is particularly important if you have children or pets. Both children and pets tend to get scared and look for a place to hide. Make sure you know where they are in the home and how you could access them and get them to safety.

Teach your children 

This one is pretty straightforward. Make sure your kids know the basics:

  • Don’t play with matches
  • How to call 911
  • Home address and phone number
  • Don’t play with or near the stove or fireplace
  • Know two ways out of the home

Again, this may not seem like a big deal now, but when the time comes you want them to be prepared. 

Also, check out the article I wrote on fire safety tips for kids.

Consider having a lockbox installed

This one may not prevent a fire, but it can prevent a lot of damage to your home in the event the fire department needs to get access to your home. 

Imagine this, you and your family are on vacation. You get a phone call from a neighbor who ways it looks like they can see smoke in a bedroom window.

Turns out, something is on fire but because its early not much damage has been done. You, or your neighbor, calls the fire department, and when they arrive they have no access to your home. What do they do? You guessed it, break down the door.

Perhaps you could consider having a residential lockbox installed at your home. If you’re unfamiliar with what this is, it’s simple. It’s a small box secured to the side of your home with a combination that only you and the fire department know the code to.

That way, if the fire department or EMS ever needs access to your home and you can’t open the door, they can get inside your home with little to no damage. 

These are very popular with senior citizens or individuals with limited mobility as well. 

Keep dangerous/toxic materials/chemicals to a minimum

It was just a few weeks ago that I responded to a house fire where I heard some loud sounds coming from the garage. Unbeknownst to me, there were multiple propane tanks, oxygen bottles, settling torches, chlorine, gasoline and oil in the garage. Fortunately, everything turned out ok, but all of those things add to the already present danger of a house fire. 

If you can, keep these things to a minimum. 

Grab a ladder

If you live in a house with two or more stories, it may not be a bad idea to grab a residential escape ladder. I know it sounds cool to just jump from the second or third floor, but it certainly doesn’t feel good when you land. I highly recommend you spend a few dollars to keep an escape ladder in all second floor and above rooms.

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Take EXTRA precaution on holidays

It seems like almost every holiday we get at least one call of someone that made one of these common mistakes that lead to a disaster. Be mindful during the holidays of some of the potential risks that you may encounter. Here are just a few to be aware of.

  1. Be careful with the turkey fryer. This is all too common during Thanksgiving, and here’s a video of what can happen if you don’t fry a turkey the right way:
Be careful when frying a turkey!
  1. Check the cords for the Christmas tree. If you’ve been using the same Christmas lights for decades you may want to consider getting new ones. These cords and lights wear out over time and can easily become a fire hazard. 
  2. Make sure your tree is watered. A bone dry Christmas tree is like having a match in the middle of your room. Make sure your tree stays healthy and watered. 
  3. Careful with putting up lights on the house (fall risk). This may not catch your home on fire, but it can certainly ruin your day. If you’re putting lights on your house be sure to do it safely, with a partner and use a properly sized ladder. 

Use wired smoke detectors with a security system

This one may be a little pricey, but if you can swing it, it’s worth it. If you can, opt for hardwired smoke detectors. This means the detectors are all connected and they run off the power to your house. That way, if one detector alarms, they all alarm. These detectors also have a battery backup in case the power goes out you won’t lose protection. 

Couple this with a monitored security system and this can really help in the event there is a fire in your home.