Preventing Fires
Preventing Fires
Zoltan Major /

The National Fire Protection Association claims that the majority of fires that occur in the home are caused by cooking and that these fires cause the majority of fire injuries, as people often try to fight them on their own. The majority of fire deaths in the home are caused by smoking (e.g., when an individual falls asleep while holding a lit cigarette and sets their bedding on fire), closely followed by cooking fires. Fires on college campuses follow a similar trend. Nearly 90% of campus fires are cooking fires, while the remainder are caused by power strips, candles, space heaters, and arson. Fires can often be prevented, and by following the guidelines below, you can keep yourself and your belongings safe.

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Know your surroundings.

The first step in fire safety is knowing what safety measures already exist in your dorm or apartment. Dorms must have fire alarms, smoke detectors, and sprinkler systems installed. Though waking up to a 3:00 a.m. fire alarm because someone decided to make popcorn is definitely annoying, you are safer for it. Living on campus is the easiest way to know that your home is up to fire code, since your school will routinely check your smoke detectors and test fire alarms for you. Be sure to know where the fire alarms and fire extinguishers are in your building, in case you’re ever a first responder. Then, provided you participate in mandatory fire drills, you’ll be good to go if there ever is a real fire.

If you live off campus, make sure that your apartment or house is up to fire code before you sign the lease. Older homes, in particular, may not have all the safety measures that are now required by law. Check to make sure that your apartment has smoke detectors in the kitchen, common areas, and bedrooms (and test them to make sure that they work). It’s worth checking to see if the all smoke detectors are linked, so that when one goes off, those located in other parts of the house or apartment sound too. You may also consider installing a carbon monoxide detector (you can buy them at stores like Target), especially if your home or apartment is connected to a gas line. Buy a fire extinguisher, and know how to use it, just in case.

If you are considering living in a basement room, check for an alternative exit. Legally, rooms in basements cannot be called “bedrooms” unless there is a window that meets legal size and positioning requirements. For this reason, beware of accepting a basement bedroom without first visiting the property. Often basements have small windows that are next to impossible to crawl through in an emergency, and the windows may be also covered with bars. If a basement room doesn’t have a feasible alternative exit and your potential landlord is pushing you to sign a lease agreement, do not live there.

In case of fire, regardless of where you live, you need to have at least one alternative exit from each room of your home besides the front door. Plan an exit strategy. If you live above the first floor, consider buying a fire ladder that you can use to climb out a window in case a fire blocks your normal exit. If you live in a basement or on the ground floor, make sure you know how to open the windows and remove the screens in case of fire. It’s not a bad idea to double check that you’ll fit through the window, too.

Follow fire safety tips.

  • Do not leave appliances plugged in when they are not in use.
  • Do not store personal items on or under radiators. Likewise, do not cover up heating or air conditioning vents. Curtains and wall decorations should not impede the flow of air and should not rest on top of a radiator.
  • Be careful with candles, incense, and other open flames. (These are banned on many college campuses.)
    • Never leave the room while there is an open flame.
    • Keep all open flames at least one foot away from anything flammable.
    • Burn candles and incense in holders that are made for them, not directly on a table or other surface.
  • Do not cover up or tamper with smoke detectors.
    • Test your smoke detectors monthly.
    • Replace the batteries in your smoke detectors annually.
  • Do not hang anything on the sprinkler system.
  • Do not leave the kitchen when you are cooking.
    • Do not cook when you are under the influence of alcohol or prescription medication.
    • Keep flammable items and liquids away from the stove.
    • Smother grease fires. Water and grease do not mix and pouring water on a grease fire will cause it to spread.
  • Do not use hot plates or electric heaters. (These are banned on many college campuses.)
  • Do not link multiple surge protectors together. Surge protectors should plug directly into an outlet.
  • Do not block windows with furniture. This could be an alternative escape route in case of fire.
  • Do not prop open or lock fire doors.
  • Always empty the lint trap after using the dryer.
  • Smoke only in designated areas outdoors. When you are finished, put out your cigarette completely and dispose of it in a designated ashtray. Do not toss warm cigarette butts into the trash or on the ground.
    • Do not smoke in your bedroom or when there is the possibility that you could fall asleep.
  • Do not assume you can have a campfire on campus or in a park. Your college (or a park) may have designated campfire areas or forbid campfires outright. Look up the Fire Danger Rating in your area before making plans to have a campfire. If the rating is above Low or Moderate, do not start a fire, as it has the potential to get out of control very quickly.
    • If you light a campfire, make sure it is fully extinguished before you leave the area. To extinguish a campfire, first drown it with water. Then, stir the ashes, sticks, and embers to ensure that everything is wet and no longer burning. If the ashes are hot to the touch, add more water until the fire is fully out.

In case of fire, call 9-1-1, pull the fire alarm, and get out of the building. If the exit is blocked, try to find an alternative way out (a back staircase, a side door, or a window). If you cannot get out, make sure that someone knows where you are. Hang a sheet outside of your window and call for help. You should also contact emergency services immediately and let the operator know your exact location in the building for rescue.

Learn about putting out fires.

In all cases of fire, you should call the fire department, even if you manage to put the fire out yourself. Firefighters can assess the situation and determine how the fire started and how to prevent another one. The following tips are not meant to be a replacement for the fire department. If the fire is large or spreading or if there is a large amount of smoke, get out of the building, pull a fire alarm, and call the fire department. Never put your life in danger to try to fight a fire, regardless of the cause or location.

  • Ordinary combustible fires (Class A): These are fires that occur when paper, wood, cardboard, plastic, or cloth catches on fire. It is best to put these fires out with a large amount of water or a Class A fire extinguisher. This type of fire can also be smothered if it is small and you can deprive it from a source of oxygen.
  • Flammable liquid fires and gas fires (Class B): Flammable liquids and gases (gasoline, propane, butane, natural gas, etc.) and water do not mix, so do not use water to put out this type of fire as this will just make it spread more. If you can shut off the source of the liquid or gas, do it. If it is not safe to do so, evacuate the area, as a single spark could set off an explosion. These fires should be smothered.
  • Electrical fires (Class C): If you smell something burning but do not yet see a fire, unplug the suspicious appliance immediately. If you have access to a breaker box, turn off the electricity leading to the outlet the appliance uses. If there is a fire, do not use water, as water conducts electricity. If the fire is small, you can cover it with baking soda, or use an appropriate fire extinguisher.
  • Flammable metal fires (Class D): Flammable metals (potassium, sodium, aluminum, magnesium, etc.) burn very hot, spread fast, and can result in explosions. This type of fire should be put out with a dry powder extinguisher, which has the ability to absorb heat and smother the flames.
  • Grease fires (Class K): These must be smothered; do not try to pour water on a grease fire, as this will only make it worse. If you can, turn off the stove. Then, put a lid, pot, or other nonflammable container over the fire to cut off its oxygen supply. If there is nothing available, pour baking soda over the fire. An appropriate fire extinguisher can also put out a grease fire.

Fire extinguishers are rated according to the types of fires they can put out (the class of the extinguisher corresponds to the class of the fire). Never use a water extinguisher on anything other than a Class A fire. There should be an image or text on the side of a fire extinguisher showing what types of fires it can safely put out.

In general:

  • Water extinguishers can be used to put out Class A fires.
  • Clean agent extinguishers can be used to put out Class A, Class B, and Class C fires.
  • Water mist extinguishers can be used to put out Class A and Class C fires.
  • Carbon dioxide extinguishers can be used to put out Class B and Class C fires.
  • Dry chemical extinguishers can be used to put out Class B and Class C fires.
  • Dry powder extinguishers can be used to put out Class D fires.
  • Wet chemical extinguishers can be used to put out Class K fires.

It may be useful to watch a video demonstrating how to use a fire extinguisher before ever having to use one, but directions are also written on the side of the extinguisher. Remembering the acronym “PASS” is also useful when using an extinguisher to fight a fire:

  • P: Pull the pin.
  • A: Aim at the base of the fire.
  • S: Squeeze the handle.
  • S: Sweep the nozzle from side to side until the fire is extinguished.

If you are ever in danger, you are not obligated to—and, in fact, shouldn’t—attempt to fight the fire on your own. Instead, call 9-1-1 and evacuate.

Page last updated: 03/2019