The Chief’s Corner

Fire Safety Tips from James Levine,
Fire Chief of the Upper Saddle River Fire Department and
20 year veteran of the New Jersey fire service.

Today’s fire safety topic involves all the equipment normally used to heat your home and its contents. Here we will touch on furnaces, fireplaces, chimneys, space heaters, wood stoves and water heaters and give you some KISS (Keep it Simple Stupid) Rules to improve fire safety in your house. Many homes may have a combination of these devices or equipment so that means we have to be increasingly concerned with a lot of issues. Annually, home structure fires involving heating equipment account for hundreds of deaths and injuries and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage. Each year there are upwards of 45,000 such fires reported. God know how many go unreported! The prime months for such fires are December, January and February, but anytime during the heating season we should be on our guard.

Among heating equipment fires, chimneys and fireplaces take top honors in the number they cause.  The main culprit is the build-up of creosote in chimneys and flues.  Creosote results from incomplete burning of wood and leaves a sticky dark residue coating on the inside of your chimney.  Continuous build-up presents a dangerous situation as this substance can ignite and burn extremely hot, resulting in fire damage to unintended areas – around the flue and chimney- a structure fire.  Not good, right?  KISS RULE # 1:  Have your chimneys inspected and cleaned annually.  If you use your fireplace or wood burning stove often, then have them cleaned more frequently.  And be careful with the type and condition of the wood you burn.  High creosote content pine should not be used, nor should wood that is green or unseasoned.

While we’re on the fireplace and wood stove subject, let’s be careful with sparks and embers.  Make sure you have a screen on your fireplace to prevent them from flying out into the room.  And this may sound simple, but make sure you open the flue or damper before lighting a fire.  You’d be surprised how many people wind up with a house full of smoke and a bunch of fire trucks in front when they forget this simple step.  If your fire is still going and to be left unattended, like when going to bed,  be sure to stoke the fire which causes it to die down and out.  KISS RULE #2:  Allow fireplace and wood stove ashes to cool before disposal.  And make sure you do this in a metal container!  You really don’t want to burn up your garbage cans and your house by not adhering to this rule, right?

The next area of concern is portable and fixed space heaters.  These devices cause a disproportionate share of home heating fire deaths.  The main cause of such fires was having combustibles to close to the heater. Make sure you leave at least a 3 foot “safety zone” of clearance around the unit. Unattended space heaters cause many fires each year.  KISS RULE #3:  Do not leave space heaters unattended.  Turn them off when you leave the room.  When purchasing a new space heater, be sure it has the seal of an independent testing laboratory and have fixed space heaters professionally installed, following all necessary codes and manufacturer’s instructions.

Finally, any oil or gas-fueled heating device (the furnace and hot water heater) presents a unique safety requirement.  Be sure that they are properly vented to prevent carbon monoxide from entering the home. We’ve covered this issue before, but its worth repeating. KISS RULE #4:  Install Carbon Monoxide alarms outside each sleeping area of the home if you have a gas hot water heater or oil/gas heating.  Unvented gas space heaters are not recommended and liquid petroleum gas heaters with self-contained fuel supplies are a big no-no.  It is a good practice to have your hot water heater and oil/gas furnace professionally inspected and serviced annually.

Let’s be warm, but let’s also be safe in there- your home, that is.

Questions?  Or thinking of becoming a volunteer firefighter?  E-mail Chief Levine at:  USRFD1230@prodigy.net