The National Fire Protection Association reports that in 2006, kids started an estimated 15,000 home and building fires, causing nearly 1,000 deaths or injuries and resulting in $328 million in property damage. In a poll conducted by Liberty Mutual and the International Association of Fire Fighters, 84 percent of parents admitted that they do not frequently discuss fire safety with their children, even though seven in 10 parents also report their children are less than fully prepared to escape and survive a fire. Statistics show that the fire death risk for children under age five is nearly double the risk of the average population, and that children make up 15 to 20 percent of fire-related deaths.
“Fire is neat to kids of all ages,” says Kevin Kleinworth, a veteran firefighter in Nye County, Nevada. “It’s a good idea to have a serious sit-down talk as soon as they’re of school age and tell them what fire can do when it’s not so pretty.” And don’t tiptoe around the truth: A picture of what a fire has done to a home, says Kleinworth, can be worth a thousand words.
Beyond drilling into kids the importance of not starting fires, most experts agree that it’s essential -- and quite simple -- to educate them on what to do in the event of one as well. “It’s easy to teach children the right way to react to a fire,” says Karen McHale, a fire safety expert in Idaho Springs, Colorado, whose nationwide Fire Station Buddies program aims to teach kids about being safe in an emergency. “In fact, many kids who know what to do can even save their parents.” Read on for tips on how to protect your children from fire, from their toddler to their post-teen years.
Toddlers are endlessly curious. This includes sticking their fingers, toys and anything else within reach into open electrical sockets. As soon as they’re moving around on their own, make sure children know that sockets are totally off-limits (and use protectors as backup).
Children five and under comprise nearly two-thirds of all play-related fire fatalities. At home, use child-resistant lighters, but keep in mind that child-resistant doesn’t mean child-proof (and that kids are crafty). Store matches and lighters out of children’s reach and sight, preferably in a locked cabinet, and teach them to tell an adult if they see matches or lighters lying around. As Kleinworth says, “In the hands of kids, matches are as dangerous as guns.”
And never play mindlessly with lighters or matches or use them to entertain. “Children will do what you do,” says McHale. “Show them that you take fire very seriously.”
Hands-on education can never start too early, says McHale. “Often, parents think their preschoolers are too young to learn about fire, but kids should be aware of how quickly fire can spread.”
Fire is frightening. Neurologically, overstimulation can cause emotional pressures, which leads to poor information processing. This results in faulty decision-making. Preschoolers are characteristically ill-prepared to react in a beneficial way to life-threatening situations; therefore, the adults in their lives need to be clear about fire safety, and not complicate it with mixed messages of when it is okay to put out a fire and when a child should leave the building. There should be one message and one message only to this age group – “Get out!”
Begin to teach them what to do in the event of fire. “Many kids who accidentally start a home fire are so worried about getting into trouble that they try to put it out themselves,” which can lead to injury or worse, says McHale. Teach your child to notify a grown up, then evacuate and call 911 when safely outside the house, no matter how the fire began. Home drills are also crucial. McHale suggests families practice an evacuation plan that includes mapping out various exit routes, and a meeting spot outside. “Kids are going to panic,” she says. “In fact, everyone’s going to panic. But having a plan that everyone is familiar and comfortable with will help reduce the freak-out factor.” It has been proven that home escape plan drills reduce panic and injury in fires and that trained and informed people have a much better chance to survive fires in their home.
“At seven and eight, kids are pretty inquisitive and want to learn,” says McHale. This, however, also makes them more likely to experiment on their own. According to the National Fire Protection Association, half of those arrested for arson are younger than 18. No matter how smart they are, up until about age 11 children just don’t have the ability to anticipate what might go wrong. They may be able to handle the mechanics of a stove, but they don’t know how to respond if something goes wrong, such as grease catching fire. If your child shows signs of being fascinated by fire, obtain the assistance of a mental health professional.
While parents should first obtain appropriate fire safety education, local fire stations typically hold open-house days where kids can also learn about preventing fires, explore fire trucks and ask about careers in firefighting.
Consider outfitting your kids’ rooms with escape ladders, and make sure kids who may sleep or doze off while watching TV in the basement know how to get out of the windows. Periodic practice using fire escape ladders is very important to ensure they will be used properly and will not cause personal injury. Practice placing and using them from a first floor window.
Most accidental home fires started by teens are cooking-related, and often involve the microwave. “Make sure your teens know not to cook anything longer than necessary,” says McHale. If something does catch fire in the microwave, turn it off immediately and keep the door closed until the fire is completely out. (The fire will almost always extinguish itself with a lack of oxygen.) Teenagers also burn incense and may experiment with smoking. “Let your kids know that no matter how safe they are, candles and incense in the bedroom are not allowed,” says McHale. “It’s just not worth the risk.”
If your teen goes camping on his own, ensure he’s learned how to build a proper campfire. “Some parents think if they don’t teach their kids how to light a fire, they just won’t do it,” says McHale. “Unfortunately, that’s almost never true.”
With incense, tapestries and late-night snacking as almost certain rites of passage for college kids, it’s no surprise that thousands of fires occur on college campuses each year. Such campus fires are more common during the evening hours between 5-11 p.m., as well as on weekends. Dorm-room cooking contributes to 75 percent of reported dorm fires. And although only five percent of fires in campus housing began in the bedroom, these fires accounted for 62 percent of the civilian deaths and one-quarter (26 percent) of the civilian injuries. Similarly, while only two percent of the structure fires were caused by smoking materials, they were responsible for 39 percent of the deaths.
“While parents often take the time to educate their children about home fire safety, a focus on fire safety while living away from home is often neglected,” says the National Fire Protection Association’s Lorraine Carli. When choosing student housing, look for dorms fully outfitted with sprinkler systems. Later, remind your college student that the fire precautions they took at home should be practiced even more rigidly while away at school. That includes limiting cooking to kitchen areas (no hot pots!), staying in the kitchen area while cooking, cooking only when not drowsy or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, using battery-operated candles, smoking outside only, having a fire escape plan and practicing all drills as if they were the real thing.