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Fire Prevention

Your smoke alarm has the power to save your life. Or does it? If you haven't tested your smoke alarm lately, it may not be working. And that's a risk you can't afford to take. Working smoke alarms give us early warning of a fire, providing extra time to escape safely. But they can't do their job if we haven't done ours - monthly testing to make sure they're working. Test all the smoke alarms in your home. For the life of the alarm and for the lives of your loved ones.

In 2001, according to the National Fire Protection Association, 3,100 Americans were killed and another 15,200 were injured as a result of fire. Direct property loss due to fires was estimated at $5.5 billion. Fire killed more Americans than all natural disasters combined. 85% of all fire deaths occurred in residences. With these startling statistics in mind, here are some safety tips for you:

Smoke Detectors Carbon Monoxide Detectors
Smoke Detectors
Fire Extinguishers
Your Exit Plan
Furnace/Space heaters
Clothes Dryer
Electrical Hazards
Children & Grandchildren
Gasoline & Other Flammable Liquids
What is Carbon Monoxide (CO) and why do I need a Carbon Monoxide Detector?
What are the medical effects of Carbon Monoxide and how do I recognize them?
What are the different types of Carbon Monoxide detectors and how do they work?
Are some types of Carbon Monoxide detectors better than others?
How many Carbon Monoxide detectors should I have and where should I place them?
What are the most common causes of Carbon Monoxide detector alarms?
What should I do when my Carbon Monoxide detector goes off?
What can I expect to happen if I call 911?
Where can I get further information concerning Carbon Monoxide detectors?

Smoke Detectors

  • Smoke is responsible for three out of four deaths.
  • Install smoke detectors on every level of your home and outside of sleeping areas.
  • Test every detector at least once a month. [See your instruction book for the location of the test button.
  • Keep smoke detectors dust free. Replace batteries with new ones at least once a year, or sooner if the detector makes a chirping sound.
  • If you have a smoke detector directly wired into your electrical system, be sure that the little signal light is blinking periodically. This tells you that the alarm is active.
  • Inexpensive smoke detectors are available for the hearing impaired.

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Fire Extinguishers

  • They remain your best bet if you're on the spot when a fire begins.
  • Fire extinguishers should be mounted in the kitchen, garage, and workshop.
  • Purchase an ABC type extinguisher for extinguishing all types of fires.
  • Learn how to use your fire extinguisher before there is an emergency.
  • Remember, use an extinguisher on small fires only. If there is a large fire, get out immediately and call 911 from another location.

        Fire Extinguishers Guide - informational flyer

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Your Exit Plan

  • As with other things, the best motto is, "Be Prepared."
  • Prepare a floor plan of your home showing at least two ways out of each room.
  • Sleep with your bedroom door closed. In the event of fire, it helps to hold back heat and smoke. But if a door feels hot, do not open it; escape through another door or window.
  • Easy-to-use window escape ladders are available through many catalogues and outlet stores. For instance, First Alert sells one for around $90.
  • Agree on a fixed location out-of-doors where family members are to gather for a head count.
  • Stay together away from the fire. Call 911 from another location. Make certain that no one goes back inside the burning building.
  • Check corridors and stairways to make sure they are free of obstructions and combustibles.
  • To help cut down on the need for an emergency exit in the first place, clear all unnecessary items from the attic, basement, garage, and closets.

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  • Remember, you're deliberately bringing fire into your home; respect it.
  • Use a fireplace screen to prevent sparks from flying.
  • Don't store newspapers, kindling, or matches near the fireplace or have an exposed rug or wooden floor right in front of the fireplace.
  • Have your chimney inspected by a professional prior to the start of every heating season and cleaned to remove combustible creosote build-up if necessary.
  • Install a chimney spark arrester to prevent roof fires. When lighting a gas fireplace, strike your match first, then turn on the gas.

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Furnace/Space Heater

  • Used improperly, a space heater can be the most dangerous appliance in your house.
  • Install and maintain heating equipment correctly. Have your furnace inspected by a professional prior to the start of every heating season .
  • Don't store newspapers, rags, or other combustible materials near a furnace, hot water heater, space heater, etc.
  • Don't leave space heaters operating when you're not in the room.
  • Keep space heaters at least three feet away from anything that might burn, including the wall.
  • Don't use extension cords with electrical space heaters. The high amount of current they require could melt the cord and start a fire.
  • When lighting a gas space heater, strike your match first, then turn on the gas.
  • Never use a gas range as a substitute for a furnace or space heater.

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Clothes Dryer

  • Under some circumstances, dangerous heat can build up in a dryer.
  • Never leave home with the clothes dryer running.
  • Dryers must be vented to the outside, not into a wall or attic.
  • Clean the lint screen frequently to keep the airway clear.
  • Never put in synthetic fabrics, plastic, rubber, or foam because they retain heat.

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Electrical Hazards

  • Electricity, the silent servant, can become a silent assassin.
  • It is better not to use extension cords. If you feel you must use one, make sure that it is not frayed or worn. Do not run it under a rug or twist it around a nail or hook.
  • Never overload a socket. In particular, the use of "octopus" outlets, outlet extensions that accommodate several plugs, is strongly discouraged.
  • Do not use light bulb wattage which is too high for the fixture. Look for the label inside each fixture which tells the maximum wattage.
  • Check periodically for loose wall receptacles, loose wires, or loose lighting fixtures. Sparking means that you've waited too long.
  • Allow air space around the TV to prevent overheating. The same applies to plug-in radios and stereo sets, and to powerful lamps.
  • If a circuit breaker trips or a fuse blows frequently, immediately cut down on the number of appliances on that line.
  • Be sure all electrical equipment bears the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) label.
  • In many older homes, the capacity of the wiring system has not kept pace with today's modern appliances. Overloaded electrical systems invite fire. Watch for these overload signals: dimming lights when an appliance goes on, a shrinking TV picture, slow heating appliances, or fuses blowing frequently. Call a qualified electrician to get expert help.

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  • Careless cooking is the number one cause of residential fires. Never leave cooking unattended.
  • It's wise to have a fire extinguisher near the kitchen. Keep it 10 feet away from the stove on the exit side of the kitchen.
  • Never pour water on a grease fire; turn off the stove and cover the pan with a lid, or close the oven door.
  • Keep pot handles on the stove pointing to the back, and always watch young children in the kitchen.
  • Don't store items on the stove top, as they could catch fire.
  • Keep kitchen appliances clean and in good condition, and turn them off and disconnect them when not in use.
  • Don't overload kitchen electrical outlets and don't use appliances with frayed or cracked wires.
  • Wear tight-fitting clothing when you cook. Here's why: An electrical coil on the stove reaches a temperature of 800 degrees. A gas flame goes over 1,000 degrees. Your dish towel or pot holder can catch fire at 400 degrees. So can your bathrobe, apron, or loose sleeve.
  • Be sure your stove is not located under a window in which curtains are hanging.
  • Clean the exhaust hood and duct over the stove regularly. and wipe up spilled grease as soon as the surface of the stove is cool.
  • Operate your microwave only when there is food in it.

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Children & Grandchildren

  • One-fourth of all fire-deaths of children are from fires started by children.
  • Keep lighters and matches out of the reach of children.
  • Never leave children unattended with fire or space heaters.
  • Children are naturally curious about fire, so keep an eye on them. But if a child repeatedly plays with fire or seems to have a morbid fascination with fire, seek professional help at once.
  • If youngsters live with you or stay overnight occasionally, be sure that they know how to escape from every room and are part of your emergency exit plan. 

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Gasoline and other Flammable Liquids

  • Those cans aren't painted red just for the fun of it!
  • Flammable liquids should be stored only in approved safety containers, and the containers should be kept outside the house and garage in a separate storage shed.
  • Gas up lawn equipment and snowthrowers outside, away from enclosed areas and any source of sparks or heat.
  • Start the equipment 10 feet from where you filled it with fuel.
  • Don't fill a hot lawn mower, snowthrower, or other motor; let it cool first.
  • Never clean floors or do other general cleaning with gasoline or flammable liquids.

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  • If you actually believe that you're immune from cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and other ills, at least worry about burning to death.
  • Never smoke in bed.
  • Don't smoke when you are drinking or are abnormally tired.
  • Use large, deep ashtrays, and empty them frequently.
  • Never dump an ashtray into the trash without wetting the butts and ashes first

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Frequently asked Questions about Carbon Monoxide Detectors:

What is Carbon Monoxide (CO) and why do I need a Carbon Monoxide Detector?

  • Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, tasteless and toxic gas produced as a by-product of combustion. Any fuel burning appliance, vehicle, tool or other device has the potential to produce dangerous levels of carbon monoxide gas. Examples of carbon monoxide producing devices commonly in use around the home include:
  • Fuel fired furnaces (non-electric)
  • Gas water heaters
  • Fireplaces and woodstoves
  • Gas stoves
  • Gas dryers
  • Charcoal grills
  • Lawnmowers, snowblowers and other yard equipment
  • Automobiles
  • The Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) reports that approximately 200 people per year are killed by accidental CO poisoning with an additional 5000 people injured. These deaths and injuries are typically caused by improperly used or malfunctioning equipment aggravated by improvements in building construction which limit the amount of fresh air flowing in to homes and other structures.

While regular maintenance and inspection of gas burning equipment in the home can minimize the potential for exposure to CO gas, the possibility for some type of sudden failure resulting in a potentially life threatening build up of gas always exists.

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What are the medical effects of Carbon Monoxide and how do I recognize them?

Carbon monoxide inhibits the blood's ability to carry oxygen to body tissues including vital organs such as the heart and brain. When CO is inhaled, it combines with the oxygen carrying hemoglobin of the blood to form carboxyhemoglobin. Once combined with the hemoglobin, that hemoglobin is no longer available for transporting oxygen. How quickly the carboxyhemoglobin builds up is a factor of the concentration of the gas being inhaled (measured in parts per million or PPM) and the duration of the exposure. Compounding the effects of the exposure is the long half-life of carboxyhemoglobin in the blood. Half-life is a measure of how quickly levels return to normal. The half-life of carboxyhemoglobin is approximately 5 hours. This means that for a given exposure level, it will take about 5 hours for the level of carboxyhemoglobin in the blood to drop to half its current level after the exposure is terminated.

The following table describes the symptoms associated with a given concentration of COHb:

% COHb Symptoms and Medical Consequences
10% No symptoms. Heavy smokers can have as much as 9% COHb
15% Mild headache.
25% Nausea and serious headache. Fairly quick recovery after treatment with oxygen and/or fresh air.
30% Symptoms intensify. Potential for long term effects especially in the case of infants, children, the elderly, victims of heart disease and pregnant women.
45% Unconsciousness.
50%+ Death.

Since one can't easily measure COHb levels outside of a medical environment, CO toxicity levels are usually expressed in airborne concentration levels (PPM) and duration of exposure. Expressed in this way, symptoms of exposure can be stated as follows:

PPM CO Time Symptoms
35 PPM 8 hours Maximum exposure allowed by OSHA in the workplace over an eight hour period.
200 PPM 2-3 hours Mild headache, fatigue, nausea and dizziness.
400 PPM 1-2 hours Serious headache- other symptoms intensify. Life threatening after 3 hours.
800 PPM 45 minutes Dizziness, nausea and convulsions. Unconscious within 2 hours. Death within 2-3 hours.
1600 PPM 20 minutes Headache, dizziness and nausea. Death within 1 hour.
3200 PPM 5-10 minutes Headache, dizziness and nausea. Death within 1 hour.
6400 PPM 1-2 minutes Headache, dizziness and nausea. Death within 25-30 minutes.
12,800 PPM 1-3 minutes Death.
As can be seen from the above information, the symptoms vary widely based on exposure level, duration and the general health and age on an individual. Also note the one recurrent theme that is most significant in the recognition of carbon monoxide poisoning- headache, dizziness and nausea. These 'flu like' symptoms are often mistaken for a real case of the flu and can result in delayed or misdiagnosed treatment. When experienced in conjunction with a the sounding of a carbon monoxide these symptoms are the best indicator that a potentially serious buildup of carbon monoxide exists. This comment will be returned to later.

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What are the different types of Carbon Monoxide detectors and how do they work?

There are a number of different types and brands of carbon monoxide detectors on the market today; They can be most easily characterized by whether they operate on household current or batteries. Underlying this, in most cases, is the type of sensor employed in the detectors operation. Detectors using household current typically employ some type of solid-state sensor which purges itself and resamples for CO on a periodic basis. This cycling of the sensor is the source of its increased power demands. Detectors powered by batteries typically use a passive sensor technology which reacts to the prolonged exposure to carbon monoxide gas.

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Are some types of Carbon Monoxide detectors better than others?

Regardless of the type of sensor used all detectors sold on the market today should conform to minimum sensitivity and alarm characteristics. These characteristics have been defined and are verified by Underwriters Laboratory in their standard for carbon monoxide detectors UL 2034. This standard was most recently revised in June of 1995 and went into effect in October of 1995. This revision specified additional requirements regarding identification of detector type, low-level (nuisance) alarm sensitivity and alarm silencing. Under no circumstances should one purchase a detector that is not UL listed.

Each of the two types of detectors mentioned previously has applications in the home along with associated advantages and disadvantages. The proper detector for each application or installation should be chosen based on the application requirements and the products specifications. The following are the principle advantages and disadvantages of the two different type detectors:

 Characteristics Household Current Battery Operated
 Cost $30-50 $30-50
 Ease of Installation Requires outlet near detector or 'Hard wired Electrically"  Can be placed anywhere
 Maintenance None during average 5-10 Year lifespan Requires replacement battery/sensor every 2/3 years
 Reaction time/exposure Level Display Gives Continuous display of CI levels updated every few minutes  Reaction time is limited depends on concentration and duration of exposure. Display information limited.
 Reset Time Will reset immediately once CO problem is resolved. Reset time depends on concentration and duration. May require removal of sensor pack. A silence button however is now provided.

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How many Carbon Monoxide detectors should I have and where should I place them?

The Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends a detector on each floor of a residence. At a minimum, a single detector should be placed on each sleeping floor and any other normally occupied space. Installation in these areas ensures rapid detection of any potentially malfunctioning appliances and the ability to hear the alarm from all sleeping areas. In general, carbon monoxide detectors should be placed high (near the ceiling) for most effective use although some can be placed into electrical outlets. Detectors should also not be placed within five feet of gas fueled appliances or near cooking or bathing areas. Consult the manufacturers installation instructions for proper placement of a detector within a given area.

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What are the most common causes of Carbon Monoxide detector alarms?

There are many conditions which can cause a carbon monoxide detector to alarm. Most are preventable and few are actually life threatening. Ideally through proper placement of the detector and education of the users the number of preventable calls can be minimized and activation will only occur in the more serious situations.

Preventable causes of CO alarm activation and the recommended preventive action are as follows:

 Cause Preventative Action
 Inadequate fresh air venting of the home  Have a heating contractor install a fresh air makeup system in the home.
 Running gas powered equipment or automobiles in a home or garage  Gas powered equipment or vehicles should never be operated within a home or garage- even if the garages door is open. Since most homes are typically at a lower pressure relative to outside air, the gas can actually be drawn into the home.
 Charcoal grilling in the home or garage.  Charcoal grilling is a tremendous producer of carbon monoxide gas. Charcoal grills should never be operated in the home.
 Malfunctioning appliances or equipment in the home.  All fuel burning appliances or equipment in the home needs periodic inspection and preventive maintenance. While all fuel burning appliances will produce some CO gas, regular preventive maintenance can keep this to a minimum.
 Malfunctioning or overly sensitive alarm.  Buy only UL Listed alarms conforming to the latest revision (June 1995) of UL standard 2034. This revision includes new requirements to minimize nuisance alarms.


While many causes can be prevented others can not and may occur unpredictably. Not only are these problems harder to predict but they also tend to be more serious in nature. Examples of these type problems are:

  • Cracked furnace heat exchanger.
  • Malfunctioning furnace or water heater.
  • Blocked chimney.
  • Other unpredictable events- vehicle left running in garage, gas powered device placed near fresh air vent to home, etc.
  • Minimizing preventable events allows everyone to take other less preventable and predictable events more seriously.

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What should I do when my Carbon Monoxide detector goes off?

First and foremost, stay calm. As mentioned previously most situations resulting in activation of a carbon monoxide detector are not life threatening and do not require calling 911. To determine the need to call 911, ask the following question of everyone in the household:

"Does anyone feel ill? Is anyone experiencing the 'flu-like' symptoms of headache, nausea or dizziness?"

If the answer to the above by anyone in the household is true, evacuate the household to a safe location and have someone call 911. Failure to evacuate immediately may result in prolonged exposure and worsening effects from possible carbon monoxide gas. The best initial treatment for carbon monoxide gas exposure is fresh air.

If the answer to the above by everyone in the household is no, the likelihood of a serious exposure is greatly diminished and one probably does not need to call 911. Instead, turn off any gas burning appliances or equipment, ventilate the area and attempt to reset the alarm. If the alarm will not reset or resounds, call a qualified heating and ventilating service contractor to inspect your system for possible problems. If at any time during this process someone begins to feel ill with the symptoms described above evacuate the household to a safe location and have someone call 911.

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What can I expect to happen if I call 911?

What to expect when calling 911 is based on the polices and procedures of the public safety agencies serving your community and will vary from area to area. Most public safety agencies are, however, recognizing the dangers posed by carbon monoxide gas and are adopting similar procedures to the ones described below. These procedures are based on information developed by the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and other national and regional associations. The objective of these procedures is to quickly determine the severity of the situation and provide the proper emergency response. The following is a summary of what one can expect to happen if the call 911 because a carbon monoxide detector is sounding:\

When initially calling 911 be prepared to provide the following information:

  • Your address.
  • The type of detector that is sounding.
  • Whether or not anyone is feeling ill with 'flu-like' symptoms as previously described.
  • Whether or not everyone has evacuated the residence.
  • The reading on the detector (if known or available)
  • The dispatcher will determine the response required based on the answers to the above- most significantly whether or not anyone is feeling ill.
  • If anyone is feeling ill and/or you can not or have not been able to evacuate everyone, law enforcement, medical and fire personnel will be assigned to the call on an emergency basis. Law enforcement to assist with the immediate evacuation of individuals, medical to treat any victims and fire to monitor for CO gas and assist with the other activities.
  • If no one is feeling ill, you may be advised to contact your local heating contractor or gas company to assist you or, more likely, fire personnel will be dispatched on a routine basis to monitor for CO gas and advise if a 'real' carbon monoxide problem exists.
  • As mentioned previously, response policies vary by community and you may wish to call your local fire or police non-emergency number to ask what their particular policies are.

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Where can I get further information concerning Carbon Monoxide detectors?

Several manufacturers of carbon monoxide detectors offer toll free numbers for additional information regarding their products. These numbers are as follows:

Manufacturer Number
American Sensors 800-387-4219
Enzone 800-488-0535
First Alert 800-323-9005
Jameson 800-779-1719
Nighthawk 800-880-6788
Quantum 800-432-5599
Radio Shack Contact your local store
S-Tech 800-643-5377

Additional information with product ratings is contained in the July 1995 Consumer Reports issue on home safety products. One word of note regarding the ratings in this issue- the products tested have probably since be replaced by updated models conforming to the revised UL 2034 standard which took effect in October 1995. Check with the manufacturer for current information.

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Last Updated: Fri, 12/08/2023 - 12:25pm