With government advice to contain the spread of COVID-19 resulting in more people spending more time at home, this increases the need to be extra vigilant with home fire safety. Anecdotally, the risk of a fire at home is when people are there. A larger number of domestic fires occur between 6pm and 8pm and historically fires related to cooking tend to increase over the weekends. Here are some considerations for keeping you, those you live with and your home safe from fire during this time.
Most fires start in the kitchen, so take care when cooking. Some things to consider include:
- Avoid wearing loose clothing when cooking;
- Keep combustible items, such as tea towels away from the hob;
- Whilst using the hob, do not leave it unattended;
- Supervise children in the kitchen, especially when using the hob. This is particularly important during these times of no school or childcare for the majority;
- Make sure saucepan handles are not left sticking out to prevent them from being knocked off;
- Do not put metal in the microwave;
- Check toasters, ovens, hobs and grills are clean and in good working order. A build-up of crumbs, fat and grease can ignite a fire;
- Do not cook under the influence of alcohol;
- Do not take unnecessary risks or throw water over a pan if it catches fire, you should turn off the heat and call 999;
- Take extra care if frying or using chip pans. Chip pans cause one fifth of all accidental dwelling fires attended by the fire and rescue service in the UK each year. Nearly 20 people are killed or injured every day in accidental fires that start in their kitchen, the most common of these are caused by deep fat frying. If you do choose to deep fat fry your chips, make sure you do it safely. Better still, choose oven chips or use a thermostatic fryer.
You should also make sure that you are following safe practices when barbequing:
- Make sure your barbecue is in good working order;
- Make sure the barbecue is on a flat site, well away from a shed, trees or shrubs, etc.;
- Keep children, garden games and pets well away from the cooking area;
- Never leave the barbecue unattended;
- Keep a bucket of water or sand nearby for emergencies;
- Make sure the barbecue is cool before attempting to move it;
- Be extra careful if using gas BBQ’s. You should make sure the tap is turned off before changing the gas cylinder, change cylinders outdoors if possible or in a well-ventilated area. If you suspect a gas leak to the cylinder or pipe work, brush soapy water around the joints and watch for bubbles -tighten to fix but do not overtighten. After cooking, turn off the gas cylinder before turning off at the controls to ensure any residual gas in the pipe work is used up.
Fire detection checks
A worrying number of homes still do not have suitable fire detection in place. Every year Fire and Rescue Services are called to approximately 50,000 fires in the home, which kill nearly 500 and injure over 11,000 people. Many of which could have been prevented if people had an early warning and were able to get out in time. In fact, you are twice as likely to die in a house fire that has no smoke alarm than a house that does. So, keep yourselves safe and follow the advice from the Fire and Rescue Service:
- Make sure you have a smoke alarm on each level of the house and test their functioning regularly. Test them by pressing the button until the alarm sounds. If it doesn’t sound, you need to change the batteries. If the alarm frequently beeps on a regular basis, you will need to replace the batteries;
- Check the life expectancy of the batteries installed and replace them when they have reached their end of expectancy. Longer life batteries are recommended to alleviate the need for more frequent replacements and people often forget to do this. Standard battery options are the cheapest, but the batteries will need replacing each year;
- Consideration should be given as to whether your temporary office set up has led to a higher risk environment and you may need additional detection in this location.
Know your escape routes
At work we are constantly assessing our emergency exit plans and carrying out routine checks on our escape routes, so why should it be any different in the home? You should adopt the following approach to ensure quick and safe escape in the event of a fire in the home:
- Plan a suitable escape route and make sure everyone in the property knows what to do. This will usually be your main way in or out of your home;
- Try to identify an additional alternative exit route in case your main one is blocked;
- Make sure that your escape routes are kept clear;
- Keep keys to doors and windows in a location that everyone can access easily (you may also need to think about any vital medication or documents and make sure these can be grabbed easily if needed);
- If you live with others discuss these emergency plans with them. If children are in the house discuss who and how you will provide assistance, so everyone is safely out as quickly as possible in the event of a fire.
Every year, over half of accidental domestic fires in the UK are caused by electricity. Most of these are caused by electrical products, either through misuse or faults. I turn over half of these electrical fires start in the kitchen, with cooking appliances and white goods the main cause. The following advice should help to keep you, your family and your home safe:
- Avoid ‘Daisy chaining’ which is when extension leads are plugged into additional extension leads. This should be avoided as it increases the chance of excessive heat build-up due to electrical overloading from in use appliances; and
- Don't overload plug sockets. Keep to one plug per socket and look out for plugs and cables that are poorly wired as they can be dangerous.
These first two points are particularly important as the office set up is something that a home was not designed for - additional equipment means additional sockets and the temptation to use extension leads and block adapters is real, so you should consider the extra risk.
- If you use a charger, for a phone or laptop for example, don’t leave it plugged in and switched on when you’re asleep or not using it;
- Avoid any appliance running overnight, such as switching on the dishwasher or washing machine before going to bed. Your reaction time to a fire is slower when you are sleeping;
- Any doors to rooms such as kitchens, utility rooms, living rooms, should also be shut before going to bed, to reduce the spread of smoke and flames in the event of a fire;
- Always check you are using the right fuse in any electrical item and look for a British or European safety mark when purchasing new electrical equipment;
- Look out for signs of damage i.e. scorch marks and unplug appliances when not in use and before bed;
- Make sure electric blankets are stored flat, rolled up or loosely folded to prevent damage to the wires. Always turn them off before you get into bed, check regularly for wear and tear and follow manufacturers guidelines. Electric blankets account for over 5000 fires a year in the home; and
- Keep all electrics (including cables) away from water.
Use candles safely
Numbers of fires are caused each year from negligent use of candles. In the year 2003 alone, there were 1791 house fires due to candles. As a result, 22 people died and over 650 were injured. Since this time, the sale of candles has risen by 50%. Consider the following steps to safely manage the risks associated with candles:
- Keep candles in a secure holder;
- Position them away from curtains or other fabrics/furniture (TV’s are also not fire resistant);
- Keep them away from draughts;
- Don’t put them under shelves, try and keep 1 metre between a candle and any surface above it;
- Keep candles out of reach of children and pets;
- Fully extinguish candles before moving them or before going to bed (they should not be left to burn unattended); and
- Consider using LED candles as a much safer alternative option.
Smoking is by nature a hazard when it comes to fire safety. You should make sure that you:
- Smoke outside if you can do so safely;
- Always stub out cigarettes properly and dispose of them carefully;
- Don’t smoke in bed or anywhere you could fall asleep;
- Keep matches and lighters away from children; and
- Try and avoid smoking under the influence of alcohol or medication that could cause drowsiness.
Heating your home
Every year over 100 people die and nearly 1,000 are injured in their homes, as a result of fires caused by heating appliances. Many of these fires involve portable heaters. Some considerations include:
- Avoid using portable heaters where possible. If they are required, then try to store them up against a wall to prevent them from falling over, but keep them away from curtains, soft furnishings and anything else that could easily catch alight;
- Never use portable heaters for drying clothes;
- Always turn portable heaters off before you go to bed;
- Consider installing timer devices so that heaters do not get forgotten and/or left on for prolonged periods of time;
- Replace any radiant bar portable heaters with a lower risk oil filled heater; and
- Make sure to follow manufacturer’s instructions on usage.
Then there is the issue with open fires and wood burners. These, by their very nature, are high risk and should be used carefully. You should:
- Place wood burning stoves on a fire-resistant base and not directly on to a carpeted or wooden floor;
- Make sure the chimney is cleaned properly at the end of the season and kept clean and clear of large quantities of soot or ash building up during the seasons of use (this may need to be done more than once a year);
- Use a protective fire guard to contain the fire within the stove area; and
- Remove burnt ash and burnt fuel, once cool, at the end of each use.
Alternative accommodation considerations
High rise apartments or flats
Living in a high-rise building should not necessarily mean that you are at a higher risk from fire, if suitable and sufficient evacuation procedures are in place and people are aware of what to do in the event of an emergency. The building design should comply with building regulations and fire safety will have been taken into consideration at the design stage. You should make sure that you:
- Know your building evacuation plans. This may either be a stay put or full evacuation procedure;
- If staying put, make sure all windows and doors are shut and secure;
- Never block emergency escape routes (not even for your bicycles or push chairs!), always keep clear to allow safe escape;
- Do not use a lift to escape, unless it is a designated evacuation lift;
- Liaise with your neighbours to make sure they are aware of the evacuation plan, particularly neighbours directly adjacent, above or below you; and
- Familiarise yourself with your escape routes and keep keys or vital documents/medication close to the front door so they can be grabbed easily on the way out.
You should follow the guidance referenced previously in this paper and make sure you liaise with your landlord to make sure that the following duty of care criteria is met:
- Your gas and electric appliances are safe and in good working order (gas and electrical appliances should have safety certificates dating when they were last checked);
- Your property has at least one smoke alarm on each level;
- Gas appliances are checked by a Gas Safe engineer every year;
- Electrical appliances must carry the British Safety Standard design;
- Make sure furnishings provided are fire resistant and meet safety regulations; and
- A Carbon Monoxide alarm is present in all rooms containing a solid fuel burning appliance.
Although uncommon, most thatch fires (around 90%) start with a fault to the chimney or flu. Thatch is designed to be water resistant which can make it difficult to extinguish when on fire. First and foremost, you should make sure you speak with your insurance provider about your level of cover and what you should be doing to meet these requirements. It’s important you know your policy. Check your level of cover with your insurance provider and make sure you are following their guidelines. Some insurance providers make it part of your policy to have a garden hose on standby. Some state how often spark arrestors need to be cleaned, and what size the flue outlet should be.
You should make sure you follow the guidance within this article and follow the additional guidance below:
- Maintain your chimney or flue. Old chimneys or those in poor physical condition can deteriorate to the point that smoke or hot gases can escape into the roof space or directly to the thatch. You should make sure any home alterations are carried out by a registered engineer or builder, sweep your chimney twice a year (autumn and spring), keep your chimney in good working order and consider fitting a bird guard to prevent this from becoming blocked by a nest;
- When using an open fire or wood burner in your home make sure you burn seasoned or kiln-dried wood stored in a dry airy place. The moisture content of the wood should be below 20%. You can check this by using a moisture sensing probe. You should make sure you don’t burn any other waste material in wood burning stoves as they aren’t designed for this and it can lead to blockages in chimneys and flues.
Extinguishing a fire
Remember that you should not try and tackle a fire yourself - get out (closing the doors as you go if possible), stay out and call 999.
You should consider keeping a fire blanket in your home which could be used on a pan fire (a damp tea towel could also be used as a makeshift fire blanket on smaller fires of this nature) or to protect a child from flames for example.
References for information provided include: