Every 20 seconds in the U.S., a fire department responds to a fire in the U.S., according to statistics from the National Fire Protection Association. But many of us rarely -- or maybe never -- think about preparing for a fire, or what we could do to prevent one.
For renters, the added risks are assuming the landlord has taken care of potential hazards and being unable to control the behavior of neighbors. On the flip side, some fire safety experts point out a transient lifestyle of moving in and out of apartments may also help keep you more vigilant about fire prevention. That is, if you follow the recommended guidelines each and every time you move into a new pad.
From containing a disaster in the kitchen to the truth about auto-off appliances to who is responsible for a chimney, here's a refresher on some key fire prevention tips to keep you and your place safer now -- as well as when you move next.
Fire Safety 101
Evacuation Plan: At the top of the list is knowing your escape route. You should have at least two ways out of your unit and check that your building has unobstructed, lighted pathways to the outside. Experts advise practicing this drill at least twice a year and having a neutral meeting place outside your building, such as street light, a park, or a coffee shop. If you have windows with security bars, you need to confirm that there's a quick release button, so that the window is another route out in an emergency, says Judy Comoletti, a division manager for NFPA Public Education.
Smoke Alarms: Test your smoke alarms when you move in to make sure that they are working properly and every month thereafter. If you don't have smoke alarms, you should ask your landlord to install them as they are usually required by state law in residential buildings. If not, your local fire department may also be willing to install them. Fire safety expert James Pharr says fire alarms are critical, especially a system that's interconnected throughout the building that notifies you when smoke has been detected in another unit, so you may want to inquire with your leasing agent or landlord about your building's system.
Fire Sprinklers: This is trickier to ensure because laws on fire sprinklers vary from state to state and generally depend on the size of your building. While you can ask your landlord to install them, Comoletti suggests looking for a building that already has ones installed before renting.
Fire Extinguishers: Buy one for your apartment (small, kitchen-size ones begin around $50) and have on hand to put out any small fires -- except for a grease fire. That can be handled best by covering with a pan lid.
Fire Ladders: For units up to three stories high, Pharr recommends purchasing a fire ladder, which run in the $50 to $100 range.
While you might not have control over what precautions your neighbors are taking in the event of a fire, renters can take responsibility for their own behavior to prevent a fire from occurring, says Milosh Puchovsky, professor of practice at Worcester Polytechnic Institute's Department of Fire Protection Engineering in Worcester, Mass.
Such behaviors may range from lighting candles to using the fireplace to smoking, and if you normally engage in these activities or habits, here's how to make yourself less vulnerable to a fire accident:
Clutter: If you can't part with any belongings in your sardine-sized apartment, at least remove objects in hallways and exits routes from blocking your way out, and pitch debris, such as boxes, trash, or old magazines, that could be a fire source, advises Comoletti.
Space heaters: Renters who resort to space heaters for additional heat should use as directed. Place them at least three feet away from flammable objects, like a stack of magazines, curtains or a piece of upholstered furniture, and always turn off when going to sleep or leaving the room.
Powerstrips: If you have a lot of plugs jammed into your outlets, use a power strip which has a safety mechanism that will cut off the current of electricity if the outlet overloads.
Smoking: The most dangerous place to smoke is in bed and the safest place to smoke is outside. If a designated outdoor smoke-area doesn't exist in your building, make a request to your landlord or management company that one is created.
Cooking and Appliances: Cooking is the leading cause of fires in the home, says Comoletti. The most important tip is to always stay in the kitchen when frying, boiling or grilling food. She adds that it's imperative to be alert and to avoid cooking when you've consumed any alcohol or are on prescription medication.
Another pointer is to upgrade to appliances, such as irons, coffee pots and ovens, that have an auto-shut off function. "It's a more intrinsically safe unit because it cuts down on ignition sources," says Puchovsky.
And clean your cooking appliances following use will also prevent food scraps that have dripped or fallen close to the heating elements from catching fire. If a fire starts in the oven, Pharr says the best thing to do is close it.
Candles: Renters love candles as they are an easy, affordable way to make a rental property feel like home, but they can catch your apartment on fire in the blink of an eye. Always stay in the room with candles, keep away from flammables, like curtains, bedding and furniture, and only light when you are going to be conscious --and not dozing off to the television.
Fireplaces: If you have a working fireplace and plan to use it, Puchovsky advises asking your landlord if it's been clean before you move in, and ask for records to see if it's been maintained routinely and will be kept up to acceptable standards in the future.
Furnaces and heating systems: These should be checked out on an annual basis, says Pharr, and the servicing of them
should be outlined in the lease, including the cost. It will not only make sure they're working effectively, but will also catch potential fire-related problems.
If you feel like you have your fire safety ABCs covered, but want to make sure your neighbors are equally as aware, there's no reason why you can't spread the word in your building. Print out some pamphlets from the NFPA, put them under your neighbor's doors, or pass them out at your next building meeting.
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