Fire, CO detectors a matter of life or death

Posted: Tuesday, October 15, 2002

As the temperature outside drops, heaters and fireplaces are roaring to life -- and that means it's time to make sure homes are safe from fire and carbon monoxide.

No. 1 to staying safe is installing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in the home, said Central Emergency Services Fire Marshal Gary Hale.

Both are available at area stores and are the first defense against fire and carbon monoxide fatalities.

Smoke detectors should be placed near the ceiling, as smoke rises, while carbon monoxide detectors can be installed pretty much anywhere between the floor and ceiling, Hale said.

For best reliability, detectors should be hard-wired with battery backup systems. But regardless of the primary power source, detectors should be tested once a month and have new batteries installed twice a year.

Homeowners also should take precautions to prevent fire and carbon monoxide problems.

Heating sources are the No. 1 source of winter house fires, as well as a leading cause of carbon monoxide poisoning.

"We're asking people to check their heating sources -- wood stoves, fireplaces, furnaces, space heaters," Hale said.

As winter sets in, Hale said homeowners should make sure all heating devices are in good working condition and used according to their specifications.

Wood stoves, for example, should have an adjustable damper so air passage in the system can be increased and decreased. Stoves also should have double pipes with an air gap to cool the metal, he said.

Fireplaces should be equipped with screens to keep embers from leaping onto carpet or linoleum.

Chimneys for both stoves and fireplaces should be well-swept to cut down creosote buildup, which is the leading cause of chimney fires. Professional companies offer chimney sweeping services, and most area fire departments lend out chimney brushes at no cost to homeowners, Hale said.

Another growing cause of home fires in the past few years, Hale said, is people using gas or other flammable substances to accelerate fires.

"That's a huge one," he said. "It's just a bad idea."

Fires from improper disposal of hot ashes have decreased, though, he said. He reminded people to place ashes in a fireproof metal container, not in a paper or plastic bags, and to dispose of ashes outdoors rather than in a garage.

Portable space heaters also are a frequent source of winter fires. The best way to prevent fires from these devices, Hale said, is to follow the manufacturer's recommendations. That means leaving plenty of open space -- usually about 36 inches -- all the way around the heater.

Hale also suggested making sure the electrical wiring in the house is adequate to power the heaters and avoiding extension cords. Also, consumers should look for heaters with a trip switch, which will turn the heater off if it tips over, unplug heaters when out of the room or asleep and keep children away from the units.

Putting smoke detectors in and outside all sleeping rooms and having a working fire extinguisher on hand should be the "first line of defense," said Kenai Fire Marshal James Baisden.

Fire extinguishers should be multipurpose Type A-B-C extinguishers, effective in fighting wood, flammable-liquid and electrical fires, and Baisden said the bigger, the better.

"I have 10-pound extinguishers in my home," he said. "Anything from five to 10 pounds is good, and people should be familiar with how to use them -- before the fire starts."

The problem with one-pound extinguishers is that in all the excitement, a person may not direct the extinguisher's chemical onto the actual fire until half the extinguisher is used up, Baisden said.

Homeowners also need to be careful with natural gas appliances in the house, warned Hale. Water heaters and boilers that run on natural gas often are located in utility closets -- the same place people store rags, clothes or combustible cleaning supplies. Flammable items need to be kept away from the open flame of pilot lights on these devices, Hale said.

Natural gas appliances can be a source of carbon monoxide -- "the silent killer," Hale said.

The colorless, odorless gas is a product of incomplete combustion and can come from wood-burning stoves, kitchen stoves, boilers, heaters and hot-water heaters. When too much of the gas builds up in the blood, it can cause flu-like symptoms, including headaches and nausea. Over-exposure can lead to death.

To avoid carbon monoxide problems, Hale said homeowners should have appliances serviced annually. Keeping appliances in good repair also will increase efficiency and cut down on energy bills.

Because carbon monoxide poisoning often has flu-like symptoms, it can be hard to detect in the wintertime. However, Hale said, headaches tend to be an early symptom. The headache frequently will go away when a person is outside and come back when they enter the house.

Anyone who suspects a carbon monoxide leak should immediately evacuate the house and call 911 from a neighbor's house or cell phone. Area fire departments have the equipment to identify the source of a leak and will call the appropriate company to solve the problem.

And, no matter what the source, if there is a fire, get out of the house, call 911 and stay out of the building.



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