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Facts on Fire: How to Have Fun and Be Safe During the Holidays

Fires at home happen more often than you think. In fact, the American household averages a fire of some significance every 15 years, according to the National Association for Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Most fires are small, resulting in little or no damage. Still, there is a one in four chance a fire in your home could be large enough to be reported to a fire department.

These days, fires burn hotter and faster than ever. Fire safety experts from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Red Cross state that you may have as little as two minutes to escape. Fifty years ago, it took 30 minutes for a room in a typical home to burn. Now it takes less than five minutes for flames to spread throughout an entire residence.

In 2016, only eight percent of fires in the U.S. occurred in homes, but 30 percent of those resulted in deaths and 23 percent of those fires caused injuries. Research shows that people with intellectual disabilities are four times more likely to die in a fire than the general population.

Holidays and the winter months are the highest risk periods. Candles, decorations,and lots of cooking,are essential for holiday celebrations, but they are fire risks that can quickly turn a happy home into a disaster zone. According to theNFPA, cooking is the leading cause of residential fires during the winter months. Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and Christmas Eve are peak days for fires started in the kitchen or by a candle.

During the holidays, cooking equipment is involved in 20 percent of home decoration fires. These fires can happen when decorations are left neara hot stove. Eighty percent of deaths from fires are caused when a heat source, such as a candle or equipment, is too close to the Christmas tree.

Is Your Family Prepared? 

While many of us are accustomed to doing fire drills at school or at the office, most people don’t do fire drills at home. “Families may not think about it,” says Emily Samuel, program director at Safe Kids Worldwide, a global nonprofit dedicated to protecting kids from preventable injuries.

Today’s fire alarms and smoke detectors are critical warning systems, but they don’t lead you to safety. Even people who do worry about fires in their home because there is someone in their families with a disability are not likely to have an emergency plan.In 2017, when our team at FireGuide interviewed over 100 caregivers and parents responsible for the welfare of children and adult dependents with cognitive disabilities, 96 percent ranked fire as one of their top three safety concerns. More than 70 percent said they had never done a drill at home and had no emergency plan.

“Working smoke alarms decrease the risk of dying in a home fire by half,” says Samuels of Safe Kids. But having installed them in their homes, peopleoftendon’t pay attention to their maintenance. Fire experts say alarms typically work as they should for at least ten years, but you still need to check the batteries once a month.

How to Start Planning

Adding fire safety planning might not be high on your list of holiday preparations but winter holidays are one of the best times of the year to get started:

Take advantage of free home fire safety planning resources.

You can find them in many places on the Internet. The American Red Cross “Great Escape Quiz” covers the basics of managing smoke alarms and evacuation in eight simple questions.For example:

Question: What’s one thing you should practice during your home fire escape plan? 

Right: “Everyone in your household should know two ways to escape from each room in your home during a fire.”

Wrong:“Everyone should know a good hiding place in your home if he or she gets scared during a fire.”

Other good sources are the NFPA, Safe Kids Worldwide, and The Department of Homeland Security.

Seek out resources designed for people who learn differently.

Many organizations offer resources to teach fire safety, but not all of them accommodate people who need assistance to understand and remember. Safe Kids offers an excellent animated video that presents the critical steps in creating a plan explicitly designed to help people with cognitive challenges comprehend basic safety concepts, recognize the signs of a fire emergency, and do regular drills so they remember what to do and feel more confident in the event a real fire happens.

Personalize the plan for your family and home.

No one knows the habits of your family members,or the layout of your home, better than you do. Everyone in the family should be involved.  It is essential to include your children in fire escape plans. A walk through the house helps familiarize everyone with all the possible escape routes and exits. “Visual cues are helpful,” says Charlotte Woodward, a Community Outreach Associate at The National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS). In the Safe Kids video, The Jones Family, who have a teenage son with cognitive challenges, tapped their son’s interest in photography to pair photographs with clearly written instructions. They also put exit signs above designated evacuation doors.

Do the drill: Practice your plan.

The NFPA recommends that families practice their fire escape plan for their home twice a year, families with a member with Down Syndrome should do drills at least once a month. Regular exercises reduce anxiety and help you know your escape routes so you can exit as quickly as possible.

Get to know your local fire department.

“Schools often invite local firefighters to talk about fire safety at school, but they are usually not wearing their full gear. Ask about open houses, or in some places, you can schedule a tour at the fire house so kids can meet the fire fighters dressed in their equipment,”says NDSS’s Community Outreach and Engagement Manager Colleen Hatcher. One young mother,who has a daughter with Down Syndrome,took all of her children to their local firehouse once a month. “They brought the firemen cookies so that her daughter with a disability felt comfortable going for help with someone in uniform,”says Hatcher.

Some fire departments have special needs registries, although they are not as common as they could be. The Down Syndrome Association of Central Ohio offers one example of special needs outreach and the registration form they use. If there isn’t a registry in your area, ask what you can do to get one started!


· Keep candles 12 inches away from anything that burns.

· Electricity,or lighting equipment, was involved in 43% of home Christmas tree fires. Read the manufacturer’s instructions for the number of light strands you should connect to a single outlet.

· Make sure, your tree (live or not) is at least three feet away from any heat source such as fireplaces, space heaters, radiators, or heat vents.

· Trees should not block exits escape routes.

· Remove greens from the house before they dry out.


Make a Plan. Emergency planning steps for all types of disasters., Department of Homeland Security

How to Make A Home Fire Escape Plan, National Fire Protection Association

FireGuide App Makes Fire Drills a Household Habit, by Lili Dwight, Disabilities Issues, Spaulding Rehabilitation Network, Winter 2018

Ann Graham is Chief Communications Officer for FireGuide, an app that automates custom fire drills for the cognitively impaired. Follow us on Facebook @FireGuideApp.


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