I've had the misfortune to be caught in two building fires. One was in a military barracks in South Africa, back in the 1970's. Over a hundred of us had to make our way through smoke-filled corridors to the emergency exits at either end of the building, because the genius (genii?) who designed it had failed to specify windows with openings (or panes of glass) large enough for people to escape through them. After it was all over, and we'd stopped hacking up our lungs from smoke inhalation, a lot of us expressed quite vehement opinions about that.
The second was in Louisiana in 2008, where a faulty shredder set fire to my home office while I was elsewhere in the house. It left quite a mess behind it, but fortunately I noticed it before it could do major damage to my home. Equally fortunately, my earlier experience in South Africa had taught me to have a couple of small fire extinguishers on hand. I was able to use one of them to stop the flames from spreading too far before the fire department arrived.
That Louisiana fire demonstrated to me that consumer grade fire extinguishers (the kind you can buy at some supermarkets or hardware stores) are not necessarily a good idea (particularly the disposable variety that can't be refilled). One of mine failed to function at all, despite its pressure gauge being "in the green" before, during and afterwards. The other proved ineffectual against even a small fire, despite the claims of its manufacturer. The best that can be said for it was that it helped to slow things down. I lost confidence in consumer grade extinguishers after that experience. (A recall of tens of millions of similar products, just a couple of weeks ago, demonstrates that things haven't improved much.)
I learned another important lesson from that second experience; namely, that it was worth spending money on a high-quality product where my safety is concerned. That applies even more now that I have Miss D.'s safety to consider, as well as my own.
I took the time and trouble to educate myself in the most likely types of fire I was likely to confront. There are several very useful resources online:
- The US Fire Administration, part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA);
- Your State probably has its own State Fire Marshal's office (for example, here are the Web sites for Kansas, Tennessee and West Virginia). They usually offer information, and in some cases training, to residents of their State.
- The National Fire Protection Association offers training for professional responders, and sometimes also for the public;
- The International Association for Fire Safety Science is a professional organization for those in the field. Some of its materials are of interest to security-minded private individuals.
There are also useful resources available in our communities:
- The military often trains its members in fire-fighting and damage control. I went through a week-long course on the subject during my service in South Africa, which taught me a lot, and I know the US armed forces provide similar instruction.
- Manufacturers of fire detection and fire-fighting equipment often offer training in how to use their products. This will mostly be for the benefit of fire-fighters, but it's sometimes open to interested members of the public as well.
- I've heard of several "open days" held by local fire departments, where time-expired fire extinguishers have been donated by vendors and/or manufacturers for the public to try them out and learn how they work. At least one was arranged with a local school, where seniors could get hands-on training in fighting small fires. It was intended to encourage them to volunteer as fire-fighters, but had the added benefit of teaching them the basics of a useful skill.
As for fire-fighting equipment, I bought two or three small commercial-grade extinguishers after my Louisiana experience. Miss D. and I each had one in our vehicles, and one was on standby in our garage. However, they were all relatively small, light units, designed more to deal with electrical, or kitchen (i.e. grease or cooking oil), or garage fires than with a more common structural fire. I wasn't happy with only that level of preparation, so I've recently taken steps to upgrade it, and replace our older units with newer, more capable extinguishers. We now have six, distributed as follows:
- Two 2½-gallon water extinguishers, one next to our fireplace (which is, let's face it, the most likely source of fire problems in our home), and the other in our bedroom, in case we need to fight our way through flames and sparks to our front door. These are big, heavy units, that might not be suitable for a child to use, but we're adults, so that's not a major concern. They're free-standing on the floor.
- Two 2½-pound chemical extinguishers, one in our kitchen, one in our garage, mounted on the wall using the brackets supplied with them. These are intended to deal with electrical and/or oil and grease fires. They're filled with so-called "Purple-K", one of the most effective firefighting chemicals. They offer only about 10 seconds use each, but they're professional-grade, and should be able to handle any small kitchen or garage fire that might arise. If one isn't big enough to do the job, the other is only a few steps away.
- Two 5-pound chemical extinguishers, also filled with Purple-K, for our vehicles (one in each). These offer up to 20 seconds use, which should be enough to put out a small engine bay fire and/or stop it spreading to other parts of the vehicle. Our car extinguishers are larger than our household chemical units, because they're more likely to be needed far from a fire department or another backup extinguisher, so their extra capacity might come in very useful. (The vehicle extinguishers are currently carried in the trunk, but will soon be mounted either in hook-and-loop fastening straps, or on a vehicle fire extinguisher bracket.)
All six are commercial- or professional-grade extinguishers, refillable, and capable of being serviced if necessary. I sleep better knowing that we have reliable, high-quality equipment on hand. If we should be so unfortunate as to have a fire of any kind, they should help us contain the situation until the fire department can get here (fortunately for us, their building is only a few minutes away).
If you haven't thought about the risk of fires in your own home, and equipped yourself to fight them in the beginning stages, before they get out of hand, may I recommend that you do so? Your local fire marshal will probably be more than happy to walk through your home with you, pointing out potential problem areas and suggesting ways to deal with the danger. I submit that the expense of a fire extinguisher or two, or even just a couple of strategically placed buckets of water and/or sand, will repay itself several times over if you ever really need them. I speak from experience.
It's not just flammable household items we need to worry about. Those who service their own vehicles at home need to remember that oil and grease - not to mention gasoline - burn very readily and very hot; and barbecue grills using propane as fuel have cylinders of gas that can explode in a fire. Such materials should never be kept in your home, or in any structure attached to it such as a garage. They should be stored in an outbuilding such as a garden shed, well away from the house.
In particular, those of us who enjoy the shooting sports need to think about how and where we store ammunition, reloading components, etc. Ammunition that isn't chambered in a firearm doesn't explode in a fire - with nothing to confine the cartridge, it simply goes "pop" without sending the bullet any distance at all - but if we store it in airtight containers such as ammo cans, those can build up pressure inside until they let go with a very impressive bang. Something to think about. What's more, if we store large quantities of ammunition at home, firefighters hearing it "cook off" might withdraw from the structure and let it burn, rather than risk injury to themselves. (That's not uncommon: see, for example, here, here and here.)
The video below was produced to educate firefighters in what happens to ammunition in a fire. It's worth watching.
There's a lot to think about in terms of fire safety. It's too late to do so after the flames have taken hold.