Fire Hazards

Although the emphasis of South Bay Safety Guy is on earthquake safety, it is also important to give some attention to fire safety. They really are connected, since one of the hazards during an earthquake is the risk of fire.

Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors

Image of a smoke detector
A smoke detector
We all know about smoke detectors. If you don't have enough in your home presently, you know what to do: Add some more. Some are tied into existing electrical wiring, but if you want to install your own (which is actually pretty easy to do) and you're not a professional electrician, the battery-operated ones are much easier to deal with. If you have areas that you wish to protect where it would be hard to hear the alarm, there are models available which are connected by radio: If one detects fire, they all sound an alarm. We use these in my own home to protect the basement, so that a fire down below will sound an alarm upstairs where we can hear it even when asleep.

If you have gas appliances in your home (e.g. water heater, furnace, or kitchen stove), it's not a bad idea to install one or two carbon monoxide detectors. These don't even need installation — just put in a battery (for backup power) and plug it into an outlet. We use one in each bedroom.

Image of a carbon monoxide detector Image of a moisture detector
A CO detector A moisture alarm

The one problem with detectors is that you will have an occasional alarm to deal with. If you choose their locations carefully (i.e. if you read the instructions that come with them), a true false alarm will be rare, but they do make a deliberately annoying beeping noise whenever the batteries run low. Whatever you do, never pull out the battery to silence the alarm and then leave it that way. You'd be appalled how often firefighters cleaning up after a fatal home fire find smoke detectors with no batteries in them. The solution is simple: Always replace all the batteries at once, twice a year when you change your clocks. By changing them before they start complaining, you'll avoid having to deal with that annoying beep at 3:00 AM.

Whether smoke and CO detectors are battery-powered or not, they need to be tested periodically. One of my kids' chores is helping me do this every month or two.

Although it isn't technically fire-related, you might also consider putting a moisture alarm under your water heater. They don't spring a leak very often, but when they do — Oh boy what a mess it makes. It's useful to be notified immediately before the leak causes major damage to your home.

All of these alarms should be available at any good hardware store for around $20 apiece.

Fire extinguishers

When a fire breaks out in your home, there is no substitute for a good fire extinguisher. Of course you have to buy it, mount it, and learn to use it ahead of time.

There are two basic types that I have experience with, and both work fine:

It is much cheaper to obtain these locally rather than ordering them over the Internet, because UPS charges an exorbitant "hazardous materials fee" for shipping them. (It's a pressurized tank, so technically it's hazardous.)

Image of a fire extinguisher Image of a fire extinguisher
Fire extinguishers mounted in the home.
How many you have is up to you, but I'd recommend one on each level of the house, including one in the kitchen. If you have a garage that you work in that should have its own extinguisher.

Since any decent brand will work, the most critical thing to worry about is finding a good location for each one. You obviously don't want them to be in the way where you'll always be bumping into them, but at the same time they should not be tucked away where they are not instantly visible to someone who is fighting off panic.

Here's a story from our own home to illustrate this point. We once had a small fire in the kitchen when a potholder fell onto a gas burner, and at the time there were one adult and two 9-year-old children at home. For years we'd had a small fire extinguisher right on the kitchen counter, and a larger one in the master bedroom, so one might think there would be no problem. However, under the stress of seeing a real fire burning inside the house, not one of the three people present remembered that we even owned a fire extinguisher. The adult ran past the kitchen extinguisher without seeing it, down the hall, past the extinguisher in the bedroom without seeing it, and grabbed a blanket which was then successfully used to put out the fire. How did this happen? Don't blame the 3 people, because they only reacted the way anybody would react (including me; the one time I saw a real fire in a building, I also completely forgot to look for an extinguisher and also found another means of putting it out). No, the mistake was mine, for originally allowing both extinguishers to be located "out of the way" where they wouldn't be a bother or an eyesore. (One was tucked in the back corner of the counter, and the other was behind the bedroom door.) As a result, both extinguishers were utterly useless when we actually needed them. Needless to say we are now moving them to more conventional and visible locations mounted on the wall, where a complete stranger to our house could spot them in a single glance around the room.

Image of a fire extinguisher pressure gauge
The pressure gauge on
a fire extinguisher
Fire extinguishers need to be inspected, too. You can check them at the same time that you check your detectors, because all you need to do is look at the pressure gauge and make sure the needle is still pointing to green. Make sure you rotate the inspection duty, so that each responsible person in the household takes a turn checking them. This is the best way to make sure everyone knows where they are — another big part of the reason we had our problem when the kitchen fire occurred is that all the inspections had been done by a single person (Mike) who was not home at the time.

If you want to keep extinguishers in good condition for a long time, here's a little trick that someone taught me years ago: When you check the pressure, pick up the extinguisher and hold it upside down for a few seconds. This lets the powder inside break up and move around, which prevents it from caking into a solid mass. If you put your ear against the tank while you do this, you can hear the reassuring sound of powder sliding around so you know things are still happy inside the tank.

A few important notes about using an extinguisher on a fire:


Fire information and drills

If you have the chance, I highly recommend that you take advantage of whatever educational presentations, classes, or demonstrations your local fire department might offer. If everything you know about fire comes from watching TV and movies, then everything you know about fire is probably wrong. Here is another little pop quiz for you (answers are at the bottom of the page):

  1. What color is fire — Black, White, Red, or Green?
  2. When your smoke detector sounds, how much time do you have to get out of the house — 2 minutes or less, 5 minutes, 10 minutes, or 15 minutes or more?

You need to have an escape plan, and you need to practice it at least a couple of times a year. (I can send you automated email reminders about that if you like.) There is no substitute for actually getting down on your hands and knees and crawling down the hallway blindfolded, or for watching your kids try to open the window and crawl out (our windows were stuck shut the first time we tried it).

The most important thing to remember is that you must get out of the house right away when there is a fire. Don't try to save anything except your family, and don't ever go back into a burning building. Fire is treacherous, many of its worst dangers are invisible, and most of us who are not trained professionals really have no idea how suddenly it can kill.


Answers to quiz:
#1 When your house is on fire, all you can see is black because of the heavy smoke.
#2 Conditions in the house can become life-threatening in less than 2 minutes.