Be fire prevention smart— don’t get burned

By on October 8, 2009

National Fire Prevention Week is Oct. 4-10
Residential fires caused by electrical defects account for a significant number of total blazes each year. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, last year home electrical problems accounted for 67,800 fires, 485 deaths, 2,305 injuries and $868 million in property losses. Many of these fires are preventable.

As part of National Fire Prevention Week Oct. 4-10, Safe Electricity, an electrical safety public awareness program, urges consumers to be aware of electrical hazards. Take time this month and make it a regular habit to inspect all appliances, cords and plugs.

“Check for loose wall receptacles, loose wires or loose lighting fixtures,” said Mike Ashenfelter, building safety inspector and member of the Safe Electricity Advisory Board. “Listen for popping or sizzling sounds behind walls. Immediately shut off, then professionally replace, light switches that are hot to the touch and lights that spark and flicker.”

Electrical plugs and cords usually deteriorate gradually, making damage difficult to detect. Inspect all appliance cords and plugs for wear at least once a year. Make sure they are not frayed or cracked, placed under carpets or rugs or located in high traffic areas. Do not nail or staple them to walls, floors or other objects.

“Overloaded electrical systems can be a dangerous prelude to fire,” Ashenfelter said. “Dimming lights when an appliance goes on, a shrinking TV picture, slow-heating appliances, fuses blowing or circuits tripping frequently are signals of overloaded circuits.”

Overloaded electrical outlets or circuits that supply power to several outlets are a major cause of residential fires. Overloaded outlets and circuits carry too much electricity, which generates heat in undetectable amounts. The heat causes wear on the internal wiring system and can ignite a fire.

To prevent overloading, Safe Electricity recommends the following:
• Avoid using extension cords on a permanent basis and never plug more than two home appliances into an outlet at once.
• Use only outlets designed to handle multiple plugs. Each outlet or circuit should not exceed 1500 watts, so give special consideration to appliances that use 1,000 or more such as refrigerators, hot plates, irons, microwave ovens, dishwashers, heaters and air conditioners.
• Avoid plugging large appliances into the same outlet or circuit. If a circuit breaker trips or a fuse blows frequently, immediately cut down on the number of appliances on that line.
• When looking over electrical wiring and fixtures, look at light bulbs as well. Check the wattage to make sure light bulbs match the fixture requirements. Replace bulbs that have higher wattage ratings than recommended. Make sure they are fastened securely so they don’t overheat.
• Know where your circuit breakers and fuse boxes are and how to operate them. Check the circuit breakers and fuses to make sure they are working properly. Fuses should be properly rated for the circuit they are protecting. If you don’t know the correct rating, have an electrician identify and label the correct size to be used. Always replace a fuse with the same size you are removing.
If an electrical fire does occur, take these steps:
• Call 911 or another appropriate emergency service
• If you must attempt to put out an electrical fire, use a dry fire extinguisher or baking soda. Never try to extinguish an electrical fire with water.
• If the fire is large, try to turn off the main power source. Do not try to handle the fire yourself.

A simple way to protect your family is to check the operation of the smoke alarms every month and replace the batteries twice a year. The National Fire Prevention Agency reports that roughly 60 percent of reported home fire deaths happened in homes with no smoke alarms or no working smoking alarms.

Also develop and practice an escape plan twice a year in case of a fire. A good plan is known by all household members and includes an outside meeting location away from danger of the fire.

“The tragedies of electrical fires do not have to happen,” Ashenfelter said. “These problems can be difficult to detect, but relatively easy to prevent. Take these precautions to protect you, your home and your loved ones.

For more safety information, visit