At the start of the new year, two deadly building fires in NYC and Philadelphia left communities in mourning. The National Fire Protection Association says heating equipment (think: space heaters) is among the leading causes of these types of fires, especially during the cold weather months.
And since home fires are more common in winter than any other season, it’s important to be prepared. So we’ve rounded up some safety and prevention tips that you hopefully won’t need. But will come in handy if you ever do.
Up first, a recap of recent events.
On Jan. 5, a fire at a Philadelphia rowhouse killed 12 people — including eight children. At least two others suffered critical injuries.
The cause: Officials “believe with near certainty” that a Christmas tree ignited by a 5-year-old boy using a lighter started the blaze. Authorities said they found seven battery-operated smoke detectors in the unit. But its alerts were late (since smoke rises). The building also didn’t have fire escapes.
The devastation: The fire was the deadliest single blaze in Philly in at least a century. Mayor Jim Kenney called it “one of the most tragic days in our city's history.”
Four days later on Jan. 9, a fire at a Bronx apartment building killed 17 people, including eight children. At least 63 others were injured and dozens were hospitalized.
The cause: Fire officials blame a malfunctioning space heater in an apartment. The flames didn’t spread far. But authorities say two malfunctioning doors — including the apartment entrance and a stairwell door — didn’t close like they were supposed to. Which allowed dark, thick smoke to travel throughout the 19-story building. Officials say all of the victims died of smoke inhalation. And are still investigating what could have been done to prevent the tragedy.
Whether you live in a high-rise building or house, it’s important to be prepared for a fire — no matter how small. Here are some tips, including from the US Fire Administration (USFA), to stay safe:
Check smoke detectors. Make sure you have a working smoke alarm. There should be one in every bedroom, outside each separate sleeping area, and on each level of the home. They should be tested each month. And batteries should be swapped for new ones every year. Pro tip: Reference your lease or local city rules to see whether it’s your responsibility or your landlord’s.
Know what items are and aren’t allowed. Another thing to check in your lease. Some landlords don’t allow space heaters due to their fire risk. And the rules about fire extinguishers are left up to code officials. So if you don’t have one in your unit, check your floor to locate one.
Maintain open communication. Talk to your building manager if you see a damaged smoke alarm, fire extinguisher, or emergency light in common areas. And if you have safety concerns about your unit.
Shut it…as in, the doors. In apartment buildings, exit and stairway doors shouldn’t be propped open. They’re installed to keep heat and smoke from spreading if there’s a fire.
Create and practice an escape plan. Which you can do by…
Counting the number of doors between your home and the closest exit. And memorizing it in case you have to leave in the middle of the night.
Familiarizing yourself with all the exit doors and staircases on your floor or in your house.
Asking your building manager if there is a building evacuation plan. Or, creating one for your house. Psst…Make sure everyone in the house knows the plan.
The National Fire Protection Association and USFA have several tips in case a blaze ignites. Above all, stay calm. The first thing you’ll want to do is see if it’s safe to leave. If you can, peer out of your apartment or room — checking for smoke or flames in the hallway. If you see any, stay where you are. Also, your doorknob can indicate if it’s safe to open the door or not. If it’s hot, don’t open it. Here’s what to do if…
It's safe to leave your home:
Leave the apartment or room and close the door behind you. Remember that escape plan we mentioned above? Put it into action. You have to do this quickly, meaning leaving belongings behind. Officials recommend crouching down or staying low to avoid toxic rising smoke.
Pull the fire alarm (if it’s not ringing already) to alert your neighbors.
Use the stairs. Do not use an elevator.
Exit and call 911 once you’re outside and away from the building.
Don’t go inside for any reason. If someone is inside, tell fire officials.
Wait to go back inside once firefighters give the all clear.
You can’t escape your home:
Call 911 and tell them your exact location (think: apartment number, floor, room etc.)
Stuff door cracks with towels, rags, bedding, or duct tape. And cover your vents.
Wait at a window. If you can, open it so fresh air can get in. But don’t break it in case smoke enters from the outside.
Signal for help with things like a flashlight (the one on your phone can work) or light-colored cloth.
Not all fires are created equal. Some are easier to extinguish than others. Note: Fire extinguishers indicate what they’re used for with a letter. That’ll show if it's for…
Class A…Aka the most common types of fires. They involve things like fabric, wood, paper, trash, and plastics.
Class B…These fires involve liquids that are combustible and flammable. Think: grease, gasoline, and oil-based paints. Important: Don’t use water to put out the flames — it could make the fire worse.
Class C…Fires sparked by electrical equipment. That includes things like appliances, wiring, or space heaters. Like the above, don’t use water to control the blaze.
Class D…Not as common but can be tricky to put out. These involve flammable metals like titanium, aluminum, magnesium, and potassium. And can occur in manufacturing, industrial, and laboratory settings.
Class K…Is for kitchen. These fires involve cooking oils and greases, such as animal and vegetable fats. Again, don’t add water. Baking soda can work for small grease fires.
Two deadly fires within days of each other have put fire safety and prevention top of mind. And it goes beyond ‘stop, drop, and roll.’ Being prepared and alert can help keep you and your neighbors safe so another tragedy doesn’t happen.
Maria del Carmen Corpus, Maria McCallen, and Kamini Ramdeen-Chowdhury
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