February 9, 2005 | By: Ellen Brightwell
LEXINGTON, Ky.

Older adults are especially at risk in home fires because they are less able to escape when disaster strikes. To improve family and friends' chances of surviving a fire, make sure they can quickly escape if necessary.

Another reason people age 65 and older are a high-risk group is they are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, expected to account for 20 percent by 2050. Complications associated with aging may increase the likelihood that an elderly person will accidentally start a fire, or reduce his or her chances of surviving it.

"The primary fire safety strategies are to warn occupants early and ensure that everyone can quickly escape," said Larry Piercy, Extension safety and health specialist for the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture.

The best way to get the earliest danger warning is to install sufficient smoke alarms in the right locations and be sure they properly operate, he said. Install detectors on every level of the home, including the basement, and outside of sleeping areas. People who sleep with the door closed may want to install one inside the bedroom.

Test detectors at least monthly. The instruction book has the test button location. Keep detectors clean because dust and debris can interfere with proper operation; regularly vacuum or dust over and around the device. Replace batteries with new ones at least annually, sooner if the device makes a chirping sound. If the detector is directly wired into the electrical system, be sure the signal light periodically blinks, indicating that the alarm is active.

"Most people do not realize how quickly a home fire can grow," Piercy said. "It can become a killer in as little as three minutes. Thus, it is important to develop a disaster escape plan and practice it in advance so the whole family will know what to do, because people may not clearly think when awakened in the middle of the night."

Prepare a home floor plan that shows at least two ways out of every room. All family members, frequent home visitors and babysitters should practice the escape route at least twice a year. Also, practice crawling low under smoke. Be sure corridors and stairways do not have obstructions and combustible items. Clear all unnecessary items from the attic, closets, garage and basement.

Designate a fixed outdoor location, away from the house, for everyone to assemble for a head count. Be sure no one goes back inside the burning building. Call emergency services from another location.

Careful fireplace use and proper operation of space heaters will reduce the likelihood of home fires, according to Piercy.

Protect an exposed rug or wooden floor right in front of the fireplace with a commercial hearth extender or a flame-resistant hearth rug. Use a screen to keep sparks from flying. Do not store newspapers, kindling or matches near the fireplace. When lighting a gas fireplace, strike the match first and then turn on the gas. Have a professional annually inspect the chimney and remove combustible creosote build-up if necessary.

Keep space heaters at least three feet away from anything that might burn, including the wall, and do not leave them operating when you are not in the room. Do not store newspapers, rags, or other combustible materials near a space heater, hot water heater, furnace or the like. Do not use extension cords with electrical space heaters because the high amount of current they require could cause the cord to overheat and start a fire. Never substitute a gas range for a space heater or furnace.

When lighting a gas space heater, first strike the match; then turn on the gas.

“A fire extinguisher may be your best bet if you are on the spot when a small fire starts," Piercy said. "However, remember to first get everyone out of the home and notify emergency personnel; then, fight the fire if it still is small and does not threaten to cut off your escape route. If there is large fire, immediately leave and call emergency personnel from another location. Mount a fire extinguisher in the kitchen, garage, basement and workshop, preferably near an escape route from these areas. Use an ABC-type extinguisher that will put out all types of fires. Learn how to use it before there is an emergency."

The county Extension office has more information on home safety.

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Contact: 

Writer: Ellen Brightwell 859-257-4736, ext. 257
Sources: Larry Piercy 859-257-3000, ext. 107