It’s the pappadums. There’s smoke. Suddenly flames erupt from the grill threatening to engulf the rest of the kitchen. But we have an extinguisher and before the fire can spread I’ve leapt across the room, torn the extinguisher from its wall mounting, removed the pin and have begun shooting a jet of dry white powder into the grill and oven. The fire is out in seconds.
We are lucky. The stove and parts of the kitchen are covered in a fine yellow-white powder. However, there’s no burn marks on the wall or ceiling. We are lucky because my genius girlfriend had the foresight to buy an appropriate fire extinguisher. We are lucky because the extinguisher was deliberately and permanently located in the kitchen in plain sight. We are lucky because for three years my job was training people in fire safety, including the proper use of fire extinguishers. What’s really going to suck is cleaning that dry powder out of everything.
A fire only needs three things to get started: a source of heat/ignition, oxygen and fuel. Once a fire starts, and assuming it has sufficient oxygen and fuel, it will double in size every 30 seconds. The most common area for a fire to start is in the kitchen (stove), followed by the lounge room (electrical goods, household dust getting into powerboards) and then the laundry (failing to clean the lint filter in the clothes dryer). It’s important to have a household fire-safety plan.
- Have a working fire extinguisher. There are different types of extinguishers (1) for different classes of fire. A good general-purpose extinguisher for the home is a dry-powder (ABE) extinguisher. This type of extinguisher will put out three common classes of fire. Be warned though that the discharged powder may damage electrical equipment. Whatever type of extinguisher you decide upon, make sure that it is mounted in a position that allows quick and easy access to the extinguisher.
- Have a fire blanket. Fire blankets are great for putting out stove-top fires. Make sure that it is properly mounted on the wall where it can be seen and easily accessed. A friend of mine has experienced two kitchen fires. After the first one she bought a fire blanket and put it in a kitchen draw. When the second fire happened, no one could find the fire blanket and so no one could put out the fire. Not good.
- Cooking-fat/oil fires should be put out with the appropriate fire extinguisher or a fire blanket. Throwing water on a cooking-fat/oil fire is a guaranteed way to spread the fire in an explosive fashion. The other point is that a cooking-fat/oil fire should not be removed from the stove in an attempt to place it outside. A friend of mine tried this and required skin grafts to both arms for his troubles.
- Know how to use the extinguisher and blanket. If you have the gear then it’s just as important to know how to use it. Read the instructions when you first buy it. My reaction was quick and automatic however, my job for three years was teaching people how to use an extinguisher. If you’re still unsure about how to use either a blanket or extinguisher then contact your local fire service to see if they provide training.
- Install a working smoke alarm. I’ve got friends who deliberately disable their smoke alarms so that the alarms don’t go off while they’re cooking. A lot of the time they fail to hook them back up when they’re done. 80% of people who die in fires are killed by the smoke. A properly installed smoke alarm can alert you to danger and buy you enough time to safely evacuate the building. If in doubt, talk to your local fire service about the most suitable type and proper installation. Most battery-powered alarms need to have the batteries changed every 12 months.
- If in doubt get out. No one says you have to fight a fire. Preservation of life is the priority. It’s important there are always two quick, safe exits out of the building. Make sure that these exits are kept clear. If it comes to it, go out the window. I knew a fellow who spent 20 years in the air force as a fireman. He kept a small sledge hammer under his bed. In the event of a fire the sledge hammer went through the window, his doona went over the widow frame and broken glass and within seconds he would be safely out of his house. If you have a family, practice your evacuation plan regularly so that everyone knows what to do and panic is minimised.
- Routinely check your place for fire hazards. It’s a good idea to minimise the chance of a fire starting in the home by removing fire hazards. The common ones are frayed or worn electrical cables, a build-up of household dust in power-boards (tip: inserting childproof plugs into empty powerboard outlets stops the dust from getting in), an accumulation of leaves in the gutters, improper storage of flammable liquids (either too close to electrical sources or heat sources) and an accumulation of lint in the clothes dryer.
Having a fire safety plan is a bit like doing a first aid course in that you never really want to find yourself in a situation where you need to use it. However, just like a first aid course, knowledge and preparation can save lives.
(1) This post originated in Australia and discusses fire extinguishers and fire classes in accordance with Australian standards. Please note that the standard classification of fire classes and appropriate extinguishers are different in other countries. The author urges all readers to check with their local fire authority before the purchase or installation of any fire-fighting equipment or detection system.