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'Tis the season to take home safety measures

Posted: November 9, 2011 - 9:43am

While residents adjust to falling back an hour this week, local fire departments are advising changing the batteries in fire and carbon monoxide alarms.

"This is a great week to change the batteries in your smoke detectors and check that they are working," Nikiski Fire Chief James Baisden said.

Local fire departments are advising residents to complete a checklist of safety measures with the changing of seasons. Properly functioning alarms and alternative heating methods are main concerns.

Smoke and carbon monoxide alarms have an average life expectancy of 10 years, unless the manufacturer lists otherwise. Central Emergency Services Fire Marshal Gary Hale advises throwing out alarms at the end of that period.

When changing the batteries, a specific date of expiration or the year of assembly can be found on the backside of alarms, he said.

The only safe way to know if carbon monoxide is present is to install multiple carbon monoxide alarms in the home. Carbon monoxide is a silent killer -- the leading cause of accidental poisoning deaths in North America, according to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission.

People are exposed to the colorless, odorless, invisible gas through a number of home appliances.

Emergency calls relating to carbon monoxide spike in the winter.

CES had 23 carbon monoxide-related calls last year, and 19 calls so far in 2011.

The spike of calls during the winter can be partly attributed to the characteristics of modern homes.

"It has to do with homes being a lot tighter than they use to be, and we're all inside and trying to heat our homes with devices that, if they don't work properly or efficiently, you can get CO in your home," Baisden said. "It's very dangerous."

Hale encourages residents to check alarms around sleeping areas in every level of the home, which can help prevent fire fatalities.

"A big problem is we're seeing anywhere from 33 to 50 percent of our fire fatalities could have been prevented, because (home owners) either didn't have working smoke alarms or no smoke alarms at all," he said.

About 97 percent of fire fatalities are the result of smoke inhalation, and most victims never see fire, Hale said.

Fire departments across the nation are fighting an uphill battle to mandate residential sprinkler systems and have been doing so for decades. More than 30 years have passed since the concept of residential sprinklers was born, according to the National Fire Sprinkler Association.

Newer homes are built with hardwired alarm systems, so when one alarm goes off they all go off. This technology is very important, as people plug into music devices and may not hear an alarm on a lower level of their house, Hale said.

Battery-powered alarms remain the standard, however, and to prevent fire fatalities without expensive technology families need to prepare an escape plan.

"Thinking about what you need to do during an emergency and talking to your family about an escape plan is critical," Baisden said.

"By having an escape plan and a meeting place you can double your chances of surviving a house fire," Hale said.

Residents are also advised to clean their chimneys at least twice a year. The beginning of winter is optimal, because residents increase fireplace use during the colder season.

With the rising cost of fuel Peninsula residents are using fireplaces more frequently than in the past, Baisden said.

Using seasoned, dry wood is the best way to prevent creosote (a dark brown oil distilled from coal tar and used as a wood preservative that is released from fire logs) buildup. It is also advised not to burn trash in the fireplace.

Kenai, Nikiski and Central Emergency Services fire stations offer residents chimney-cleaning brushes to borrow free of charge. Chimneys vary in width, so stations offer different sizes of the wire brushes, which are used to knock creosote off the walls of chimneys.

Fires relating to chimney build up spike in the winter as well. CES had eight calls last year, and four calls so far in 2011.

Another alternative method of heating is the use of space heaters. Precautions need to be considered and heaters should be used only if they are approved by Underwriters Laboratories, Inc., said Hale. UL is an independent product safety certification organization.

Space heaters need plenty of free space to operate, usually 32 inches from the front of the device.

"The space is really hard to achieve in work spaces," Hale said. "A lot of people stick them underneath their desks."

The best space heaters to use are UL approved and are equipped with a trip device, Hale said. A trip device will shut the heater off it is tipped over.

Extension cords are important as well. Most space heaters should not be used with extension cords. The manufacturer will specify what type of cord needs to be used.

"The way we look at heaters is that they draw quite a power load, and if you start to feel the cords get warm they are not the correct cords," Hale said. "So, we usually just recommend no cords."

Typically, space heaters should be used during emergencies, such as power outages.

"They should be used as a more temporary measure and not for long-term heating," Baisden said.

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at jerzy.shedlock@peninsulaclarion.com.

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