COMMENTARY: Fire Prevention Week a good time to prep for emergency

As we enter the month of October, those of us in the fire service are preparing for a busy week with the schools as we enter National Fire Prevention Week, which is observed October 4-10, 2015.

Fire departments in Kent County will coordinate visits between classes coming to the fire station or [personnel from] the fire station going to the school so we can spread the word about fire safety and fire prevention with schoolchildren.

Some fire stations will hold open houses or parades to observe the week, in addition to the activities scheduled for school students. And even though teaching our children the values of fire safety is important, we need to assure that the message reaches the adults, as well.

In 2013, fire departments throughout the United States responded to approximately 370,000 fires in homes. As a result, 2,778 people perished in those fires and left 12,000 civilians injured (not including the injuries or deaths suffered by firefighters), and caused $7 billion in damages.

Half those who perished would have survived if they would have had a “working smoke detector” mounted in their homes and the detectors were maintained with fresh batteries and cleaned often.

So, too many times does the fire department arrive at a structure fire to find the occupant not out of the house, and overcome by smoke. The majority of fire-related deaths are a direct result of smoke, not fire.

When a fire starts in the home, smoke and gases build up and rise, traveling through your home, traveling to the point that it reaches the highest level, and then, with no place to go, the smoke begins to fill your home, going lower until it reaches the floor, cutting off your breathing and visibility.

Had there been a “working smoke detector” in the home, it would have alerted those folks to the fire early enough for them to escape with their lives.

We just can’t stress this enough, that smoke detectors are an important factor in saving thousands of lives every year.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (N.F.P.A.), the majority of fire deaths happen between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., when we are sleeping, and that it is recommended that you have “working smoke detectors” placed on each level of your home and in every bedroom of the home outside each separate sleeping area.

Another important part of fire safety is to have an escape plan for your home in the event of a fire or disaster. It is important to have two ways out of your home [so that] in the event you are cut off from your primary exit, the backup plan is in place.

OK, so, you have put up your smoke detectors and you have gone to bed for the night. It’s 3 a.m. and you are awakened by the piercing sound of your smoke detectors and your home is filling with smoke. Do you know what to do?

First thing is to remain calm. Second thing is, you want to get down to the floor and crawl to your bedroom door. If your door is closed, you want to carefully reach up and take your hand and feel the door and doorknob for heat. If it is hot, that means the fire is close by and you should not try to escape. Instead, place a towel or sheet under the door; this will help slow the entry of smoke into the room. You then want to get to your window and open it, removing the window screen or glass. Place a white towel or sheet in the window hanging out so rescuers know where to find you. Only as a last resort should anyone jump out a window.

Now, same scenario, only, when you get to the bedroom door, it is cool to the touch. Proceed with caution by slowly opening the door. Stay low and follow your fire escape plan, exiting the house quickly and meeting everyone at your safe place outside, like a favorite tree, a swing set, or front yard of the neighbors. If at any point you find yourself cut off from escape, you should have a second escape option available. This is why we tell everyone to have two ways out of your home.

And remember, once you are outside, STAY outside. Do not go or allow anyone else to go back inside to retrieve items from the home. Many people have suffered injuries and even death when they chose to go back inside their burning homes to try to retrieve a personal item, only to become overcome by smoke and/or fire.

Your home escape plan should be developed and practiced with everyone In the family, not only during Fire Prevention Week, but several times throughout the year so it stays fresh in everyone’s mind.

Now for a few reminders. Since fall is upon us and we want to get cleaned up around the house for the colder months, remember that you need to avoid placing flammable materials next to any heat sources. Flammable material can be papers, rags, cleaning materials.

If you haven’t by now, have your heaters and chimneys checked and cleaned by professionals. Chimney fires are usually started when the creosote builds up in your chimney, and gets hot, causing a fire to break out Also, a thorough inspection of your chimney allows for any cracks to be found and repaired. It might cost a little money now, but pays off in big dividends if you head those problems off.

Now that fall is here and you have begun concentrating on cleaning your yard, here are some things you need to know. The Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control has regulations when it comes to burning “yard waste.” Yard waste is considered [to be] tree limbs, grass clippings, but leaves are prohibited to be burned. Also, most towns in Kent County do not allow you to burn anything within the town limits. You must check with your town officials first to see if burning natural growth is allowed.

Remember, no trash or cardboard is allowed to be burned, only natural growth, excluding leaves. If you do decide to burn, you are only permitted to burn during daylight hours. Also, please remain with your controlled burn, as many people have left a fire unattended only for a few minutes, and they have returned to find the fire has spread and is out of control.

Keep a hose available if possible, and do not burn on windy days. Also. when you decide to have a controlled burning, you must notify your 911 center that you are having a “controlled burning.” The non-emergency number for Kent County is 734-6040. You will speak with a 911 dispatcher who will ask you for the address of the burning, your name and contact phone number. That information is obtained so if someone were to call about seeing a fire, the dispatchers can question the caller as to the validity of a fire or just being a controlled burning.

Again, stay with the fire and keep an eye on it. Changing weather conditions sometimes cause small controlled fires to become uncontrollable without notice. When you complete your burning, make sure you call back to inform dispatchers that you have finished, so if they get a call, they know to dispatch help right away.

And on the last subject, I want to talk about reporting emergencies. A lot of people move down to “The First State” from other states or big cities, and they are under the impression that Delaware fire departments are career departments. You could not be further from the truth.

In Kent County, the only paid department staffed with firefighters is at the Dover Air Force Base. All other stations are volunteer, which means there is no one guaranteed to be at your local fire station in an event you have an emergency. Calling the station is just delaying help.

If you have an emergency, you need to call 911 and report to the dispatcher the exact nature of your emergency, the location of the emergency (it’s important to know your location so a proper address can be given to responders). You will be asked for a phone number at which to reach you so that, in case responders have difficulty locating you, you can be called back.

It is important, also, when you call 911, to remain as calm as you can and speak clearly so the dispatcher can get your information and send help.

While the dispatcher on the phone with you gets your information, others in the room are notifying the proper agencies to respond and the dispatcher on the phone can provide vital instructions to help you while first responders are coming to you.

Remember, the most important thing to do when you report an emergency is to not delay the call. Call 911 even if you think it may be nothing; let the fire department respond and investigate the problem. We are here for our folks in the community and we are available for you 24 hours a day.

Many large fires could have been prevented if the fire or problem had been reported in its early stages. The easy way to remember this is “Don’t Delay, call 911 to get help on the way.” The minutes you save by doing this could save someone’s life.

In closing, I hope some of this information has helped. Please take advantage of visiting your local fire stations this week during the open houses, such as the Felton Fire Co., where, on Saturday, our Auxiliary is celebrating 75 years of service. For questions regarding the open house or fire prevention or smoke-detector information, call the fire station at 284-4800.

Editor’s note: Eugene Tucker is the public information officer for the Felton Community Fire Co.

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