Dec. 23, 2007 When we think of the holiday season, pleasant and joyous thoughts come to mind but each and every year there are those families for whom the holidays turn tragic.
According to Dr. Robert S. Fleming, a professor of management at Rowan University, Glassboro, N.J., and a nationally recognized authority on fire and emergency preparedness, the United States Fire Administration said fires during the holiday season each year claim the lives of more than 400 people, injure 1,650 more, and cause more than $990 million in damage within the United States.
Fleming offers a number of life-saving actions that you can take to ensure a safe holiday season. The four primary areas of concern regarding holiday fire safety are hazards associated with Christmas trees, holiday lights, holiday decorations, and candles.
Each year, according to the United States Fire Administration, more than 33 million American homes incorporate a natural tree in their holiday season celebration, and Christmas trees account for 200 fires annually, resulting in six deaths, 25 injuries and more than $6 million in property damage. Fire safety precautions are essential in that a burning tree can rapidly fill a room with fire and deadly gases.
Christmas tree fire safety begins with selecting an appropriate tree. If the tree has been freshly cut, needles should be green and hard to pull back from the branches, and the trunk should be sticky to the touch. If you bounce the tree trunk on the ground and too many needles fall off, it is a sign that it has dried out and is a fire hazard.
Placement of the tree is extremely important. Trees should not be placed close to a heat source, including heat vents and fireplaces, since the heat will dry out the tree and make it more susceptible to ignition from heat, flame, or spark. Keeping the tree stand filled with water at all times is crucial as is not keeping a tree up for more than two weeks.
The last step in the fire safety process for Christmas trees is to dispose of the tree properly. When the tree becomes dry, it must be removed from the residence promptly. It is important to resist the temptation to place tree branches in a fireplace or wood stove.
A related holiday fire safety issue involves holiday lights. Only lights that are listed by an approved testing laboratory should be used. Before installing the lights it is important to inspect for excessive kinking or wear, frayed wires, gaps in insulation, bare spots, and cracked or broken sockets.
A major issue associated with holiday lights is the overloading of electrical circuits. No more than three sets of lights should be connected together unless directions indicate that it is safe to do so. The wiring of holiday lights should be checked periodically to make sure that it is not warm to the touch. Holiday lights should not be left on when unattended.
Holiday decorations also present fire safety challenges. As with live trees, holiday decorations should not be placed near sources of heat or flame, including heat vents and fireplaces. Only nonflammable or flame-retardant decorations should be used. Artificial trees should be flame-retardant.
After unwrapping holiday gifts, wrapping paper should be disposed of properly. It should never be placed in a fireplace since that can generate dangerous sparks and produce a chemical buildup.
Many holiday fires result from the unsafe use of candles. If you use candles, they should be properly secured in stable holders and placed such that they cannot easily be knocked over. Lit candles should never be put on or near a tree. It is important that candles be attended and never left burning when leaving a residence.
While the above suggestions are designed to prevent the type of holiday tragedies that we all too often see in the holiday season news coverage, the importance of having properly installed, maintained and tested working smoke detectors in the home cannot be overemphasized in the event a fire were to occur. Knowing how to call for help in the event of a fire or other emergency and having a home fire escape plan are also essential elements of a holiday fire safety plan, Fleming said.
Fleming has more than 36 years of fire and emergency preparedness experience. He currently serves as chairman of the National Fire Academy Board of Visitors, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Fire Service Certification Advisory Committee, and the Chester County Local Emergency Planning Committee, as well as staff battalion chief of the Goshen Fire Company in Chester County, Pa.
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