Be safe in your home this winter

By Tom Phelan - ReminderNews
Featured Article - posted Tue., Nov. 20, 2012
- Contributed Photo

The holiday season is upon us, the temperatures continue to drop, heating systems and wood stoves are once again a part of our lives, and this will be our daily existence as we patiently wait out the winter. It is also the time to take stock of the changes to our winter lifestyles, as well as our homes - making certain that we are and will continue to be safe at home.

It is a statistical certainty that we have more home fires in winter than at any other time of the year. The United States Fire Administration (USFA) reports that more than 50,000 heating fires occur each year in residential buildings. Such fires result in 150 deaths, 575 injuries and $326 million in property loss.

Eighty-seven percent of fires in the home are categorized as “confined” fires. They are “confined” because they occur in spaces such as chimneys, flue pipes and in equipment that burns fuel of some type. According to the USFA, 30 percent of those fires in the “non-confined” category are generated by combustible materials being too close to heat sources.

In our region, every home has some central heating source and many also use secondary or supplemental heating sources - wood stoves, pellet stoves, space heaters. We are comfortable with this reality, and frankly are somewhat complacent with their use. Still, we need to address maintenance issues and consciously take preventive measures, if we want to stay out of the annual statistics.

Maintaining heating equipment is a first step. Qualified service personnel should examine furnaces and other central heating systems on a regular basis. Those of us who use fireplaces and wood-burning stoves must also have chimneys cleaned and inspected each year.

Any heating equipment we already have in our home or that we purchase should be endorsed by a reputable testing laboratory. And we must practice safe use habits every time they are put into service. Any heat source needs to have plenty of space - at least 3 feet - from anything that can burn. If we use space heaters, they should only be plugged directly into a wall socket, and should never be used with an extension cord.

But heating-related fires are only the second leading cause of residential building fires. The number-one source of reported fires in the home, as well as the leading cause of fire-related injuries in the home, is cooking. We create dangerous situations when we wear loose clothing near a stove or are careless with combustible items on or near the stove - such things as paper towels, packaging, potholders, oven mitts and kitchen towels.

The careless habit of leaving cooking items unattended is the single leading cause of kitchen fires. It is not always easy to stay in the kitchen when things are frying or simmering on the stovetop or while food is broiling. If you have to leave the kitchen for a brief time, it won't hurt to turn the heat source off while you are out of sight of the stove.

Become proactive about home safety. Perform an audit of your home for those areas that warrant safety concerns - furnaces, fireplaces and wood-burning equipment. Look around your furnace area, and see that anything that has been set too close to it is moved several feet away. Have a professional check to be sure it is functioning properly, and that the chimney or flue is clear and serviceable. Anything that is flammable or combustible should be well out of range of the furnace, and perhaps even stored in another room.

Inside your home, make preparations for potential emergencies such as power outages and severe winter storm conditions. If you don’t have an emergency cache, begin to assemble one. Start now to bring in some bottled water and non-perishable foods in case you are unable to get out to a store. Also gather batteries and flashlights, spare blankets or sleeping bags, a battery-powered radio and other items that can keep you in touch with the outside world in the worst of conditions. Check and service smoke and carbon monoxide (CO) alarms to be sure they are operable, and check your fire extinguishers to be sure they are not out of date. Keep one on each floor of your home, and train family members to use them.

There are other winter safety concerns outside the home as well. The steps and handrails leading to your entrances should be sound and reliable. They should also be clear of clutter (shovels, etc.). Set a bucket of sand near your door, or leave it, covered, just outside, so you can treat slippery conditions.

Take care of these things now, and be safe and sound inside and outside your home this winter.

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