How Families Can Prevent and Plan For Fires During Covid-19

November is Child Safety and Protection Month, and there’s no better time to think about how you can protect your family in the case of a fire in your home. The U.S. Fire Administration estimates that more than 300 people are killed each year and $280 million worth of property damage is caused as a result of children playing with fire.

Unfortunately, many people don’t prepare adequately for fires in their home. And during this pandemic, our focus is elsewhere as we struggle with isolation, financial difficulties and illness. Although that’s understandable, it can be dangerous. Despite COVID-19, fires still occur. In fact, since February, the Red Cross has responded to more than 29,000 home fires and aided 128,000 people in need of emergency lodging following a fire. 

With proper preparation and prevention methods, your family can decrease the chance of a fire, and ensure that they will be safe if one does occur. Good preparation also makes it easier to rebuild your life after a fire and handle the home insurance claim that may result from the damage. There are steps you can take now that will make it easier for you to pick up the pieces after the smoke has died down and the firefighters have left. 

In This Article:

Common Fire Safety Hazards and How to Prevent Them

Your first step in becoming fire-savvy is to look around your house with a keen eye, identifying items and situations that could cause a fire under the wrong conditions. Here are some of the top hazards to be aware of:

Cooking

During the pandemic, more people have been cooking at home. It’s no surprise that cooking fires are the number one cause of home fires. But they’re also one of the easiest hazards to avoid. When you’ve got something on the stove, stay alert and don’t leave the kitchen. Use a timer to remind you of when your food is done, and keep oven mitts, wooden utensils and anything else that could catch fire far from the stove. As we near the holiday season, be particularly watchful if you have guests or children in the kitchen — they can unknowingly increase the risk of fire with a simple misplaced napkin or forgotten timer.

Smoking

If you smoke cigarettes, cigars or a pipe, you have reason to be much more aware of your surroundings. Cigarettes cause an estimated 17,200 fires a year and more than 500 deaths. If possible, limit your smoking to outside. Most deaths result from a spark that catches on a bedsheet, curtain or upholstered furniture. Keep your smoking equipment locked safely away from children, and be careful of discarding cigarette butts in your garbage or garden — even some types of mulch can burn. Never smoke around anyone using medical oxygen. Even the newest trend — vaping — can cause a fire due to battery failure; you should never leave a charging e-cigarette unattended.

Electrical Hazards

Are you a do-it-yourselfer? The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends that you step lightly where electrical wiring is concerned, and instead hire a qualified electrician to do your work. When you buy a home, have an electrician inspect the wiring and make any suggested upgrades. Be careful not to overuse extension cords and don’t max out your outlets. Don’t forget the outside receptacles too; all electricity in your home should use ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) to reduce shock hazards. And it goes without saying that you should never use any item with a frayed or cracked electrical cord.

Space Heaters

A portable space heater can take the chill off a cold day, but without proper supervision, it can turn deadly. Always purchase a heater certified by Underwriters’ Laboratory (UL) or another testing company. Position your heater carefully: you want it to be three feet away from furniture and walls. Place it on a solid, flat surface, and never on a chair or table. The best heaters have auto turn-off switches which activate if the heater tips over; and that feature is worth paying extra for if you have safety in mind. Don’t use an extension cord with your heater, and keep children and others from sitting or standing too close. Finally, never leave a heater on unattended, or after you go to bed.

Dryer Fires

Dryer fires are another appliance-based fire hazard. Dryer fires can be disastrous, because you’re often not in the room while the dryer is running, so it’s easy for the fire to get out of control. The leading factor in dryer fires is a failure to clean out the ducts and lint trap. The latter should be emptied before every use. Kits to clean dryer ducts are available online. Although you may not spend all your time in the laundry room when the dryer is running, it’s a good idea to check on it regularly to ensure that nothing in the drum has ignited. 

Candles and open flames

Candles and fireplaces can give your home a lovely ambiance, but they require careful watching. Open flames are a potential hazard and can easily jump from wick to, say, curtains in no time. Blow out candles when you leave the room, and always damp fires in the fireplace before you go to bed. Use a fireplace screen and fire-resistant mat in front of the fireplace to corral any sparks. Don’t use candles in the bedroom or near anything flammable. Use sturdy candleholders, and never burn a candle down to nothing. If your home is prone to power outages, you’re better off using flashlights and battery-powered lighting than candles. 

What Are The Best Ways To Plan For a Fire?

Despite your best efforts, there is no way to completely fire-proof your home. Because of that, you want to have solid detection and fire control mechanisms in place to protect yourself and your family. 

Smoke detectors

Your first line of defense is to have adequate smoke alarms in your house: one on each floor, plus additional alarms outside of bedrooms. Make sure you replace batteries (if applicable) regularly. Many people do so when they change their clocks each year for daylight savings time.

Smoke alarms have a life of roughly ten years, so you should be replacing them once a decade. If you’re not sure how old they are, take advantage of the fact that this year marks a new decade and replace them all — then you’ll be good until 2030. 

Keep your smoke alarms clean — make sure they’re free of cobwebs and dust to avoid accidental alarms. Test them regularly, so that you and your children both know what they sound like, and know that they’re working.

Property documentation

Taking a home inventory can set you up well for the after-fire process. Make sure to go through every room in your home taking video shots of all the furniture and belongings in that room. Some home insurance companies offer an online option to list your property through your account on their site. The key is to have a listing of your valuables in a remote location that you can access easily after a fire. You will present this to the adjuster when they are determining the value of property that has been destroyed.

Fire extinguishers

Small, easy-to-use fire extinguishers are available from big box stores and online retailers. You should have one on each floor of your house, positioned up off the floor and anchored to a stable wall. Kitchens and laundry rooms are both good spots for an extinguisher, although you’ll want to keep them away from heat sources such as the stove.

When you purchase a fire extinguisher, read the directions so you know how to use it. In the event of a fire, you won’t have time to puzzle it out — a kitchen fire can spread in seconds, and you have a limited window of opportunity to use it.

The Occupational Safety and Health Organization recommends that when teaching your family to use an extinguisher, you remember the P.A.S.S. technique:

  • PULL … the pin, which breaks the tamper seal.
  • AIM … try to point the nozzle at the base of the fire, not the flames themselves.
  • SQUEEZE … the handle, which releases the extinguishing agent.
  • SWEEP … from side to side near the fire’s base until it is out. Then watch the area carefully to ensure that it doesn’t restart.

One caveat: if you aren’t sure you can put out the fire yourself, or if it keeps reigniting, get out of the house immediately. While you’re trying to extinguish the fire, have someone else call 9-1-1; even if you think you’ve controlled the fire, it’s a good idea to have a professional firefighter check the area. 

Fire evacuation plan

Create your fire evacuation plan before you need it, not when the fire is raging. Here are some tips to help you create a solid plan that could save your life:

  • If you have a floor plan of your house, use it while making your plan. If not, it may help you to go from room to room while assessing possible escape routes. The NFPA offers an easily-downloaded fire escape planning grid that can help you create your plan.
  • Consider two different exits from each room. This will include the door, but also look at windows as possible exits. Make sure the windows are easily opened — if they’re painted shut or stuck, remedy the situation as soon as possible.
  • If necessary, purchase an easily-stored fire ladder that can be attached to a window to allow for exit from a second-floor room.
  • Have regular fire drills with your family, especially if you have children, elderly relatives, or persons with disabilities living with you. Everyone should understand the best ways to exit their bedrooms as well as the home’s common areas. If you can get everyone out of the house in less than two minutes, you’re doing great.
  • If you have pets, determine whose responsibility it will be to locate and evacuate them.
  • Plan a spot away from the house where everyone should meet in the event of a fire. Avoid any spot where fire trucks might need to be, or where you might be in the way of firefighters. The next door neighbor’s front yard might be a good option, or under a tree that’s far from the house.
  • Assign a “fire buddy” to each family member. That way, no one is inadvertently left behind in a fire. Work together as a family to make sure that everyone knows what to do, even the youngest children. 

Download your own copy of our Fire Safety worksheet here!

Picking Up The Pieces After a Fire

If, despite all your efforts, you are the victim of a home fire, you may think: what do I do now? Your first concern will be for the health and safety of your family and pets. 

As soon as you possibly can, however, you’ll want to contact your home insurance agent — preferably on the same day as the fire. Your agent will assign an adjustor to visit your property and assess the damage. Don’t make any repairs until they have done so, unless you need to take steps to protect your home from further damage, such as tarping over a hole in the roof.

While waiting for the adjuster, collect as much information as you can about your home and its contents. If you can safely walk through the house, do so, noting what is destroyed and what can be salvaged. This is a good time to access your previously-made documentation of your property. If you don’t have any documentation, work from memory to create an overview of your belongings to pass on to the adjuster.

When it’s time to make repairs, get written bids from licensed contractors, with as much detail as possible. Don’t jump on the lowest bid for a repair or pay cash upfront to secure the bid price. Go for permanent repairs rather than quick fixes, and keep all receipts in a file to present to the adjuster. Make copies of all paperwork, whether from contractors, your insurer, inspectors or other vendors, and keep them all together if needed for your claim.

Ask the Experts

Image of Chuck Guice

Chuck Guice

Chuck has been active with the Arlington County Fire Department as a Firefighter for over 21 years, and has served as a Deputy Fire Marshal and Bomb Technician with the Arlington County Fire Department for the past 6 years.

  1. What are some of the most important steps you’ve taken with your family to make you home safer from fires?
    One of the most important steps that I have taken with my family is creating a pre-plan if we have a fire emergency in our home. After alerting everyone in the house that there is a fire, we leave as quickly as we can and head to our family meeting place. We then account for everyone, call for help, and let the fire department units know what is on fire and the fire’s rough location in the home.
  2. What advice would you give to parents who are talking with their children about fire safety?
    This is very age dependent. With younger children (ages 4-8 ) it’s important to discuss what the child should do if they find matches or lighters, not to touch them, and how they should go find an adult and tell them what they found. For kids ages 8-12, talk with them about the dangers of playing with matches and lighters. This age is more likely to pick up those matches or lighter to see what it does. If you take the time to show them what happens when that match or lighter is lit, they will be less curious about how it works. Remind them that fire safety is something that they practice everywhere they go.
  3. What is a commonly overlooked step towards fire safety/prevention that you’d recommend families look into as soon as possible?
    One of the most overlooked household items that families don’t realize are fire hazards are extension cords. We all are guilty of having that one outlet that just isn’t enough room for all our devices, and we use an extension cord as a quick fix. We may also still be using that cord that we bought 10 years ago; running it under a rug or carpet to reach that lamp on the table next to the chair. You may not see it, but extension cords break down over time and cause fires. Extension cords are a temporary use item. When not in use it should be unplugged from the receptacle.
  4. What times of the year do you see the most house fires, and what would you recommend that families be on the lookout for?
    One of the most common times of year we see a rise in house fires are the winter months. A couple things that I think of off hand are Christmas trees and fireplace ashes. Dried out Christmas trees can easily catch fire and this can spread very rapidly through a space. Improperly disposing of fireplace ashes before they have had enough time to cool can also create a fire hazard. If you clean out your hot ashes from the fireplace and put them outside next to the house or dump them in the trash can, they can catch again and burn your trash can or house hours later.
Image of Michael J DiRienzo

Michael J DiRienzo

Over 28 years of service as a firefighter/paramedic. Graduate of Loyola School of Medicine with a certification as a Paramedic, Advanced Life Support, Bachelor’s degree from Benedictine University, Lisle, Illinois. Attended University of Illinois Fire Service Institute. Fire service Instructor II, Instructor for CPR, First Aid and AED.

  1. What are some of the most important steps you’ve taken with your family to make you home safer from fires?
    Safety starts in the home, and my family is no exception; emergencies can and do happen to everyone. There are two steps to fire safety in the home 1) prevention of emergencies and 2) response in the event of an emergency. I would help make my own home safe from fire emergencies by taking preventive measures such as keeping appliances and utilities in good repair, (furnace, water heater, electrical system) and inspected annually by professionals. It’s always important to check exhaust pipes, outlets and vents, clean and repair them immediately if needed. Additionally, electrical cords should be checked for frayed wires, and should be rated for the electrical load they are being used for. You should also have working fire extinguishers available and know how to use them. The family and residents should be aware of procedures in the event of an emergency. Plan and practice EDITH (Exit Drills in the Home). Have a meeting place outside so everyone can be accounted for. Practice calling 911 (but don’t actually make the call during practice!). And KNOW YOUR ADDRESS! You should post your address somewhere in a conspicuous place (refrigerator, bulletin board, etc.) so that visitors, and even young people in the house know the proper address to report to the 911 operator. Calls from cell phones may not give the address, so it is vital to know when calling Fire, EMS or Police where the response is needed.
  2. What advice would you give to parents who are talking with their children about fire safety?
    Advice I would give to parents when discussing these issues with children would be to not panic them: you want them to be aware, not afraid! A simple, direct and open discussion would go a long way in keeping the family engaged. Have them participate in the planning and practice (put them “in charge” of certain aspects of the plans).
  3. What is a commonly overlooked step towards fire safety/prevention that you’d recommend families look into as soon as possible?
    The most overlooked aspect of fire safety and prevention in the home would have to be the complacency we all fall into: It becomes very easy to assume all is well when the furnace works or the extension cord has always been okay, so it’s good enough for now. Inspections, regular cleanings and repairs cannot be emphasized enough for their value in keeping your home safe. In addition, the regular review and practice of emergency procedures is frequently overlooked.
  4. What times of the year do you see the most house fires, and what would you recommend that families be on the lookout for?
    Cool weather brings about the most exposure to fire danger. After all, we are inviting fire into our homes with the use of fireplaces, furnaces and space heaters. These things, properly maintained and used according to their purpose are perfectly safe. However, it’s when we do not maintain them in good repair, or use them in a method not according to their intended use that they become a problem. Make sure to read and abide by manufactures recommendations for proper use and placement of these items. During the holidays, inspect and test lighting before you put it up. Make sure combustible materials are not near lights, space heaters or other heat sources.

Staying One Step Ahead

As we get closer to the holidays, there will be additional challenges in maintaining a fire-ready home, with flammable decorations and increased cooking added to the mix. But as we round out the year still adjusting to life in a pandemic, we have plenty of reasons for wanting to avoid any additional anxiety in our lives. 

All of this makes it even more important to remain vigilant and take precautions to make our homes as fire-resistant as possible, and to educate our families and ourselves in the best tactics to take before, during, and after a fire. By taking advantage of our suggestions, you’ll find it’s easy to have a detailed plan to stay one step ahead of fire hazards during the pandemic and beyond.

Featured image by netrun78 / Getty Images.

About the Authors

Mary Van Keuren

Mary Van KeurenContributor

Mary Van Keuren has been covering auto and home insurance for Reviews.com for nearly five years, and has published numerous reviews of state-specific insurance trends and how to find the best insurance deals for your money. She earned B.S. and M.A. degrees from Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y. and has been writing professionally, both in print and online, for 30+ years.

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