The Grenfell Tower Fire
As I write this, thirty fatalities have just been confirmed at the horrific Grenfell Tower fire in West London. Tragically, this number is sure to rise further, as reports suggest ‘several hundred’ people were likely to be in the block, mostly asleep when the fire took hold. It will take time to search all the floors, establish the final fatality count, and establish exactly what happened.
As the news unfolds, accusations are already being made about sub-standard fire detection and control measures, as well as unsafe construction methods – particularly focused on the protected stairwell and external cladding. There will be a lengthy investigation, and rightly so, but it’s always dangerous to make early assumptions about causes and start to lay blame. Sadly, we may have to wait several months for the final answer.
It’s therefore a particularly relevant time to talk to you today about fire safety in the home and the things you can do to reduce the risks of domestic fires starting in your home, as well as increasing your chances of surviving fires if they do start.
Fire – Heat, Fuel and Oxygen
Fire needs just three things to take hold – heat to start the burning, fuel to keep the burning going and oxygen to feed the burning. The last one is in plentiful supply in the air we breathe of course and you can’t do much about that in your home, so you’ll need to concentrate on the first two things.
Here are some examples of common heat and fuel sources in the typical home:
- Smoking (cigarettes, cigars and pipes)
- Electric blankets
- Kitchen appliances (e.g. cookers, kettles and toasters)
- Electrical items (e.g. white goods, plug in air fresheners, hairdryers and power tools)
- Electrical circuits (plug sockets, wiring, extension cables and lights)
- Portable heaters (especially the old style ones with red hot bars or panels)
- Paper and cardboard (newspapers, books, packaging and rubbish)
- Fabrics (such as curtains and synthetic fibre clothes)
- Aerosol cans
- Tea towels and kitchen rolls
- Flammable liquids such as petrol, oil, paint and varnish
- Plastics of all kinds
Stopping Fires from Getting Started
Obviously the best way to avoid injury and damage from fires are to stop them from happening.
Fire is a pretty simple chemical process – if enough heat and fuel are in the same place at the same time, a fire will start. So separate these two things – that’s essentially what you’re trying to do in your home.
Make sure you know where all the heat and fuel sources are in your home and keep them apart – always. Every home is different, so you need to understand this simple principle and separate these two sources in your home as much as possible.
Here are some simple prevention tips:
- If you use heaters, candles or smoking materials etc., never leave them unattended. If something goes wrong and you’re still there, you’ll notice straight away and have time to do something about it
- The same applies in kitchens – don’t leave pans unattended on your hob – they can boil dry and then catch fire
- Don’t use heaters, candles or smoking materials anywhere near fabrics such as curtains or bedding
- Keep matches and lighters well away from children – they are inquisitive and don’t understand fire risks. Keep younger children away from cooking areas too.
- Keep your kitchen clean – greasy ovens and crumb filled toasters will give the heat something to ignite
- Home electrics are also another common cause of fire. Don’t overload sockets – each domestic socket is only safely rated for 13 amps and any more power will cause it to overheat
- Plugging extension cables into a socket makes it really easy to accidentally overload it. This is becoming more of a problem these days because there are so many things we need to plug in (how many chargers or devices do you own for example)?
- Make sure the plug is fitted with the right fuse too – using a fuse that’s rated too high is dangerous – it might not blow if there’s a problem with the appliance
- Unplug appliances you’re not using, especially when leaving the house
- If you notice anything unusual with your electrics, turn it off and get it checked out – don’t ignore scorch marks, melting, hot plugs, sparks or flickering lighting
As we’ve already seen, the best way to stop getting hurt by fires is to stop them happening in the first place, but if they do start, you want to know about it.
Realising there is a fire, and realising it quickly, is vital. Smoke alarms are your best friend here:
- You’re at least four times more likely to die in a home fire if there are no working smoke alarms in place
- Every home should have at least one smoke alarm on each floor – modern houses are likely to have them hard-wired into the mains supply. Older houses should be fitted with battery powered ones instead
- Anywhere that a fire is likely to start or spread should have a smoke alarm. Avoid kitchens and bathrooms however as they will easily get set off from cooking smoke and shower steam
- The best position for smoke alarms is on the ceiling in the middle of rooms, landings or hallways
- As an alternative for kitchens, you can buy heat alarms, although they are less common – these are great if, like me, you regularly burn your food when cooking! They are set off by a quick rise in the air temperature around the alarm unit, so cooking shouldn’t affect them (obviously don’t install them above the cooker or hob though…)
- Test all your alarms every month – even mains powered ones – if they don’t work, replace them straight away
- Don’t remove batteries from smoke alarms – it’s easy to forget to put them back, leaving you at risk
- Strobe lighting or vibrating pad alarms are also available for those with sight or hearing impairments
Dealing With Fires
If you find a fire in your home, it’s possible to tackle it safely PROVIDING you’re 1) confident to do it, 2) you have the right equipment on hand and 3) you follow these rules:
- Buy a proper extinguisher made for the job – don’t use water or sand. Extinguishers work by either removing the oxygen (e.g. a fire blanket or powder extinguisher), or removing the heat (e.g. a water fire extinguisher).
- The typical home fire extinguishers available include small powder or water devices, or fire blankets, like these:
- Fire blankets are especially useful in kitchens for tackling hot oil fires or burning clothing
- Both these types are ‘single use’ so replace them if you have used them, even briefly
- Follow the manufacturers instructions on the extinguisher or blanket – read these when you buy it, not when you suddenly need to use it
- Be careful what you tackle – any fire larger than a small household wastepaper basket is unlikely to be manageable with domestic fire extinguishers or fire blankets
- Always keep yourself positioned between the fire and a safe exit, just in case you don’t manage to put the fire out before your extinguisher runs out (small extinguishers empty out surprisingly quickly…)
- If you can’t put the fire out in 20 seconds or less, GET OUT and ring the Fire Brigade on 999 – they are the professionals and will know what to do
- NEVER, EVER throw water on a burning deep fat fryer – the results are truly horrific:
- Use a thermostatically controlled deep fat fryer instead – don’t even consider saucepans of hot oil on your hob, it’s just not worth the risk
Getting Out Safely
- Make sure everyone knows how to get out if a fire does happen – the front door might often be blocked at night for example (with a pushchair or school bags), so could you get out safely through another door or a ground floor window?
- Make sure that window and door keys are easily accessible and can be used quickly
- Smoke inhalation is usually the biggest killer during fires, long before the heat and flames hurt you, so stay down low where the air is cleaner – crawl right near the floor and head towards the nearest safe way out
- Have a bright torch easily accessible – fires often happen at night, the power might have been tripped out and there is likely to be smoke
There’s a lot of information to take in here, but it’s vital stuff and may save your life one day. If you need more support, your local Fire and Rescue Service may also offer free home visits and safety assessments – these are great if you can get one. They are also likely to have written or PDF guides for you to read too. Contact them for more advice.
Lastly, if you find this article useful, please share it and help keep your friends and colleagues safe at home too.
Stuart Haysman CMIOSH
Director, Haysman Consulting Limited
Chartered Safety and Health Practitioner