The Mountain Times

°F Mon, April 21, 2014

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Have YOU blown up your spouse or house lately?

Fall is timely for fire prevention to-do lists

Last month, I almost blew up my husband and I could have caught the house on fire while I was at it.
No, not deliberately-but it was a first in the 44-plus years of married life.

I had simmered soup and tomato sauce in big pots on the stove's two front gas burners. When we went to a church meeting after dinner, I turned them off. I even put the cool pots in the fridge upon return, priding myself for having remembered to do that.

Next morning, John turned on the left burner and a great fireball schwoosched up to the overhead hood on the right burner.

He said the gas was on low all night. But there was no flame when I removed the pot, nor did he see one when he went to cook. Nor had we smelled anything.

So I tried turning the lit burner from 3 to low and sure enough the flame went out. So now I know to be very careful, not just to turn the gas off, but also when simmering to turn the knob slowly so a flame remains.

I also went to my hardware store and bought an explosive gas detector.

We have hardwired smoke and fire detectors (from when the house was built in 1978) as well as later model plug-in detectors with battery backup AND carbon monoxide detectors but had nothing for liquid propane gas.

When I asked at the store if the invisible gas from my stove, which neither of us could smell (some people cannot smell the chemical that is put into it I learned), was the same as carbon monoxide (it isn't), the helpful clerk showed me the "3-in-1 Explosive Gas alarm for propane gas, natural/methane gas, and carbon monoxide." It was expensive ($60), but I'd rather be safe than sorry and I definitely don't want to lose my husband or home! It is a plug-in with battery backup which is good since Shrewsbury is subject to lots of power outages.

October was Fire Prevention Month, so while I worked at preventing an explosion, I also replaced our non-working detectors (one relatively new detector just kept chirping no matter how many new batteries were installed).

I learned about the new photoelectric smoke detectors so I got those, too, as John mentioned to me that anyone transferring a house today or renting out an apartment or home must have working photoelectric detectors, a new law that went into effect in 2008.

But you know all this, right?

You've replaced batteries and tested detectors, including checking/replacing your fire extinguishers, right?

If not, please learn from my mistakes (read on, there are more of them) and this coming weekend when we turn back the clocks, take the time to make your home safer.

REQUIREMENTS FOR PHOTOELECTRIC ALARMS
 The Vermont Division of Fire Safety website notes "Act 180 of the 2008 Legislative Session established new requirements for the use of photoelectric smoke alarms. Photoelectric-only type of smoke alarms are required to be installed in the vicinity of any bedrooms and on each level of a dwelling, and directly wired to the building electrical service and have a battery backup for all new dwellings. Dwellings that are sold or transferred are required to beginning January 1, 2009.

"The law allows the use of photoelectric and carbon monoxide combination alarms, but it does not allow ionization/photoelectric combination alarms to be used for these specific locations.

"Many existing Vermont homes currently have old outdated ionization smoke alarms installed. These old alarms need to be replaced. The division recommends to homeowners that when you are replacing alarms that you update to a photoelectric smoke alarm now and not wait until the time when home is being sold.

No home should be without smoke alarms, and ionization alarms should continue to be used until a home can be equipped with new photoelectric alarms."

The Irony of New Technology and Laws
Anyone constructing a new single-family dwelling has to install smoke detectors and they must be hard wired with battery backup, that is "powered by the electrical service in the building and by battery."

In "a single-family dwelling newly constructed after July 1, 2005 that is provided with electrical power, carbon monoxide detectors shall be powered by the electrical service in the building and by battery."

An explanation for the change to "hard-wired" detectors is that we often forget to change our batteries so even the plug-in type with non-rechargeable batteries in them for backup won't do the forgetful much good and might even render a false sense of security.

But here is the great irony: you can live in your existing house without them and you can also still buy the ionization type detectors (they are cheaper and still on some shelves).

State law only mandates that you be sure your renter or person you transferred the house to be protected with the latest technology!

The law says {Section 2882 (c)] "Nothing in this section shall require an owner or occupant of a single-family dwelling to maintain or use a smoke detector or a carbon monoxide detector after installation."

Live free or die, anyone? Oh, that's NH, or is it?

To make matters a tad more complex, the U.S. Fire Administration website says: the "USFA recommends that every residence and place where people sleep be equipped with: Both ionization AND photoelectric smoke alarms, OR dual sensor smoke alarms, which contain both ionization and photoelectric smoke sensors."

So although perplexed by all this, I didn't give up on my efforts to make my home safer for family, pets, and visiting grandkids. The memory of a funeral home where my fellow teacher's wife and two babies were laid out in white dresses still haunts me 40 years later. A fire broke out in the living room and she took them to the bedroom where they died of smoke inhalation. (The only explanation for this tragedy is that in their panic, people often try to hide from a fire.)

I learned that photoelectric alarms respond faster to smoldering fires (upholstered furniture or bedding materials) but that ionization is good for faster moving flames (think paper and flammable liquids). I'm not throwing the old ionization ones out, but I have invested in the new technology and even bought a combo detector for extra protection.

Mistakes and Tips
I also consulted Rutland City Fire department to update myself on the mistakes we make and how to be avoid them to be safer.
Fire prevention is the biggest consideration because if a fire breaks out, it can quickly turn deadly for any occupants, including pets. Smoke detectors can do much to prevent needless deaths by giving warning time that allows escape, Lieutenant Lovett said.

However, some people disengage their detectors or fail to put fresh batteries in them, rendering them useless. (Oops, mea culpa.)
One excuse heard is that the fire alarm or smoke detector goes off too often. If that is happening, it might be faulty, and the problem could be remedied with another detector, he noted. (A chirping detector may be faulty or have expired.)
There are battery-only-operated smoke detectors, plug-in models with battery backup, and hard-wired systems with battery backup.

Because the latter operate off electrical (AC) current, they are considered more reliable, especially since connect with the alarms of the other wired-in detectors so all alarms go off, warning all occupants, not just those in the room where smoke or carbon monoxide has set a detector off.

 "It is important to check the manufacturer's instructions for when to replace the backup batteries and even the system itself," Lovett noted. (Oops Karen, your hard-wired system is how old and you've never had it checked?)

It's a good idea to write the date the unit or battery was installed on the detector itself, and to test all smoke detectors weekly according to unit's directions as well as upon return from a vacation or after being away just a few days, he said.

Locate smoke detectors outside of AND in bedrooms since some people sleep with the door closed, he advised. There should be a minimum of one on each level of the home, including the basement, and more depending on the home's design.

There are many choices in detectors, including some combination smoke/carbon monoxide detectors and new detectors with built-in timers that signal you when their useful lives are over, thus reminding you to replace them.

One new detector will allow you to record a message like "Wake up son" and give appropriate direction so that kids who have a tendency to sleep through alarms will react to your voice!

Lovett also recommends "at least one carbon monoxide detector on each level of a home." The number needed will vary with the kinds of heating appliances (such as gas or wood-burning stoves and fireplaces), and people should follow manufacturer directions for installing them, he said.

State Code also requires carbon monoxide detectors for any sleeping room with a fuel-burning appliance-various kinds of heaters and fireplaces. "Checking with a local building official and/or the local fire department or a home security expert is a good way to be safe," he advised.

"Everyone should have a CO detector if you have any type of fuel burning appliance in the home, including a furnace, or a garage attached or under the home," Lieutenant Lovett stressed. He noted that a tragedy occurred when someone inadvertently hit an automatic car starter and the garage and home filled with carbon monoxide.

To "avert a tragedy caused by a faulty heating system, blocked chimney or vent, or car starting, install carbon monoxide detectors," he said. 

When a vacationing family arrived at a home in Killington some years ago and turned on the heat, a carbon monoxide detector went off (due to a faulty furnace) and saved their lives.

The editor of this paper knows of four people (in Colorado) who were not so lucky. They all died because there were no CO detectors.

Lovett advises having your heating system checked and cleaned by a qualified person, including any flues for wood-burning stoves or wood or gas fireplaces. "By maintaining your heating system annually, which includes making sure it has adequate air coming in for proper combustion, you will have more fuel-efficient and safer operation," he said. For safe operation, he advises keeping all combustibles "at least four feet away from the water heater or furnace."

Other Major Causes of Fires
Another source of house fires is the overuse of electrical circuits. "When more home electrical outlets are needed, have a qualified electrician install them. The overuse of outlet strips can be dangerous. Be sure to follow directions and don't overload them," Lieutenant Lovett warned.

Any electrical cord, be it to an appliance like the microwave or an extension cord, can get damaged and become the source of a fire. "Inspect all electrical cords to be sure they are not cracked, frayed, or pinched by furniture or by moving them," Lieutenant Lovett said.

Older or damaged appliance cords should be replaced by a qualified person; always buy good quality extension cords that have the Underwriters Laboratories UL or other testing laboratory insignia on them, he added.

Candles are another common source of fires. Candles should only be burned on nonflammable holders away from combustible objects and never left unattended - keep away from pets, too. The candle should be dead out before you leave the room or go to sleep. That goes for candles inside pumpkins, Lieutenant Lovett added.

He said the same rules apply to cigarettes with the addition of "don't smoke in bed, use good, substantial ashtrays, and dump ashes into a metal container and dispose of properly. There are new 'fire-safe' cigarettes now, but smokers should still be vigilant - it doesn't eliminate the need to be careful."

Never put oily rags of any sort in your basement. After sanding and painting/staining, dispose of rags in a covered metal container outside the home, following the instructions found on the container (some require rags to be placed in water in a bucket).

Polyurethanes, linseed oil, paints, and stains have resulted in structure fires. Even sanding can create a hazard if the compressed dust mixes with fumes and spontaneously combusts.

Another error to avoid is putting ashes in a paper bag or box anywhere in or outside a home. No matter how cold you think the ashes are, they could ignite a fire. (I burned a board in our deck this way, and a home in town burned to the ground because someone placed week-old ashes in a box on a porch.)

The only safe way to handle ashes is to place them in a metal container and then dispose of them in a safe manner away from a building.

And having seen it all he adds, "Never vacuum ashes out of your wood stove or fireplace (or wood-burning furnace) since a fire can occur in the vacuum and lead to a house fire."

The kitchen is also a source of fires and unattended stoves are a hazard to be avoided. Be sure burners are turned off if you leave the area, or at least set a timer to remind you to periodically check what's cooking if you must be in another room. Consider removing stove knobs that toddlers can reach.

Fire extinguishers are also a good idea to have on hand; make sure everyone knows how to follow the manufactures directions.

Have A Plan
 "It's important to have an escape plan. Think about what you would do if your exit were blocked in any given room of the home. You should have two ways out of every room -windows can be one." You might consider a foldable fire ladder for an upper story. If you are frail or disabled, you might talk to your local fire chief about what you should do in case of a fire (since different departments have different systems they use), Lieutenant Lovett said.

At the very least, don't panic, use a wet towel to cover your nose and mouth and stay low to the floor as you exit. If trapped, try to get to a window and open it a little and use anything like a bed sheet to attract attention, Lieutenant Lovett advised.

In a worse case scenario of being trapped on an upper level, you have a decision to make about jumping. It might be better to climb out of the window and fall to the ground, risking a broken limb, than to die from burning or smoke inhalation or toxic fumes.

 "Once out, don't go into a burning house to retrieve anything," Lovett added.

For those who are timid or think they could never jump or leave pets inside, having a plan could mean the difference between living and dying because having thought about such an eventuality could mean you purchase a fire ladder or are brave enough to jump should that necessity ever arise.

If this seems alarmist or unnecessary, consider the national statistic that one house catches fire every single minute. Chances are you probably know at least one person or family affected by a fire in their home.

We all make mistakes, but learning from them can lead us to make ours home safer.

Remember, smoke and CO detector-alarms need to be properly installed, maintained and replaced when needed and fall is the perfect time to do that.