Fire Prevention Week kicks off Sunday, and it's critical that older Americans take steps to stay safe. Statistics show that the risk of dying in a residential fire is greater as people age because of physical and cognitive limitations, says the U.S. Fire Administration, part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Poor eyesight, hearing loss, arthritis, dementia and the side effects of medication are among the factors that can make it more difficult for a person to react to a fire, officials say. “We have about two minutes to escape our home after our smoke alarms sound. We need to consider how these physical changes may affect our ability to escape quickly,” says the Fire Administration's Teresa Neal, a fire program specialist.
Some 12,572 Americans age 65-plus died in fires in a 10-year period ending in 2017.
That's an average of more than 1,250 fire deaths a years. Members of that age group were 2.6 times as likely as the population at large to perish in a fire, the Fire Administration says.
Older homes are more likely to catch fire from electrical causes and may not have the capacity to safely handle newer appliances, Neal says. But newer homes also pose their own set of risks.
"New home construction styles, methods and materials as well as the materials we have in our home cause fires to grow quicker,” says Neal. “They burn hotter and faster. These flames create toxic smoke that can easily overcome us and be lethal."
Here are eight tips you should know, plus resources to consult to learn more about protecting yourself and your home.
1. Maintain smoke alarms
- Smoke alarms should be installed in every bedroom, outside each sleeping area and on every level of the home.
- For better protection, smoke alarms should be interconnected so that if one sounds, they signal alerts throughout the home.
- Dust or vacuum your smoke alarms at least once a year when the battery is replaced. Replace the alarm itself every 10 years.
- If you are deaf or hard of hearing, install a smoke alarm that uses a flashing light or vibration to signal smoke.
2. Use caution with open flames
- Only burn candles when you are in the room, and use sturdy candleholders.
- Smoke outdoors only, and use deep, sturdy ashtrays. Make sure butts are cool before throwing them out.
- Avoid any open flame where medical oxygen is being used.
3. Cook safely
- Turn pot handles toward the back of the stove to prevent them from being knocked off.
- Stay in the kitchen when cooking on the stove or broiling.
- Keep a pot lid nearby while cooking. If a fire starts in a pan, you can slide the lid over and turn off the burner.
4. Heat your home safely
- Keep anything that can burn at least three feet from radiators, space heaters, fireplaces, woodstoves and furnaces.
- Use a space heater with an automatic shutoff in case it tips over or overheats.
- Turn off and unplug heaters when you leave your home or go to bed.
- Make sure chimneys are cleaned professionally every year.
5. Plan your escape route
- Know and practice two ways out of every room in your home.
- Clear clutter that might block your escape route, and make sure all doors and windows open with ease.
- Practice a fire escape drill at home at least twice a year.
- If you use a wheelchair or envision having a problem escaping a fire, plan ahead and let your fire department and neighbors know.
6. Practice electrical safety
- Have a licensed electrician check your electrical system if you frequently have blown fuses or tripped circuit breakers.
- Replace outlets if plugs don't fit snugly.
- Don't overload electrical circuits, and avoid using extension cords. Have an electrician install additional outlets if needed.
- Use light bulbs that match the recommended wattage on the light fixture.
- Keep bathroom fans clean of lint and dust, which can cause the motor to overheat and ignite.
7. Sign up for emergency alerts
- Sign up for alerts to receive calls or texts about impending storms or wildfires. Lightning can cause house fires.
- In the event of a disaster, heed evacuation orders and advice of officials.
8. Protect yourself in case of fire
- Stay calm, get out fast and stay outside the home.
- Feel the doorknob and cracks around a door before opening. If you feel heat, don't open it. Closed doors prevent the spread of fire.
- If you must escape through smoke, get low and go under the smoke to your exit.
- If you can't get out, call 911. Stay where you are and signal for help with a flashlight or brightly colored object through a window.