There is a general complacency in South Africa with regard to fire safety in the home. A large misconception is that fire detection is for commercial properties but not residential. With over 2200 recorded deaths in South Africa in 2011 (Mortality and Causes of Death in South Africa 2011: Findings from death certificates), and the further number of serious injuries resulting from burns and smoke inhalation, fire safety at home does need some consideration.
Domestic fires are commonly caused by:
• Faulty electrical appliances.
• Poor electrical wiring.
• Unattended open flames (candles, fires, stoves, cigarettes).
• Winter heaters.
• Children playing with matches.
It will come as little surprise to learn that there is an increase in reported events when load shedding has occurred. Alternative light and heat sources as well as extra generators running with long extension cables can quickly become deadly attackers. Considering how simple the safety measures are versus how devastating the consequences can be it seems perplexing more South African homes don’t have the basic safety features.
Early detection of fires can help avoid death or injury. It doesn’t take much to install a small smoke detector in key areas, like outside the kitchen and in corridors. Battery powered devices are easy to install and properly certified devices (look for EN14604 certification) will warn when batteries need replacing. In many countries around the world, domestic smoke alarms are fitted as standard. It’s a sensible precaution. And for a nation happy to install electric fences, CCTV cameras and sophisticated intruder alarm systems, it seems odd to overlook this simple and cheap addition to your armoury.
Warning is a great start to alert the occupants and get everyone to safety, but preventing the fire from spreading is crucial. Applying the correct extinguisher to the fire is critical as the wrong action can often escalate the problem rather than remove it.
This is effective on flammable liquids and electrical fires, but not suitable for cooking fats or soft furnishings.
This can be used on the widest range of fires in the home. It is safe to use on textiles, wood, flammable liquids/gases and electrical fires. However, it cannot be used on kitchen fires involving cooking fats and oils. It’s a good device for garages and living areas, but you will still need a separate device for the kitchen.
Foam extinguishers are effective on woods and flammable liquids, petrol and spirits but not for kitchen or electrical fires, making this a handy device to keep in the garage.
Water fire extinguishers are good for putting out flames on carpets and soft furnishings, but are dangerous when used on flammable liquids or cooking fats. This is a good device to have in the bedroom and living room, especially if you are a smoker, but not useful for the kitchen.
This is safe to use on soft furnishings and cooking fat fires, yet hazardous when brought into contact with electrical or flammable gases and liquids. It is good for the living room and kitchen but unsuitable for the garage.
This is a handy item to have in cooking areas and can stop small pan fires from spreading. They are mounted on the wall and easily accessible: using a fire blanket is the best and quickest way to extinguish a pan fire. They can also be used to wrap around people when their clothing has caught fire.
The best thing to do is to assess the places in your home where you see the greatest potential risks of fires occurring and keep the appropriate devices in an easily accessible place nearby. A fire blanket and wet chemical extinguisher in the kitchen and dry powder device in the garage could prove invaluable tools in saving your home and your life in case of a house fire.
The invisible killer
There are many dangers associated with fire. While heat, where super-hot air can scorch your lungs and can melt your clothes to your skin, is one of the biggest fears, it’s smoke that can do the most damage. Smoke and toxic gases kill more people than flames do. House fires generally produce smouldering fires which result in thick black smoke which create complete darkness hindering any escape. Fire uses up the oxygen in the room and creates large amounts of carbon monoxide. These deadly CO fumes can lull you into a deep sleep.
There is additional risk of CO poisoning from other sources such as car fumes (for garages linked to houses) and generators. An increasing number of CO detectors are becoming available in SA and like the standard smoke detector, it can be easy to install a battery-operated unit. Unlike the smoke detector, due to the nature of carbon monoxide as a gas, it can be mounted on the wall (eye level if it has a screen) or at least 15 cm below the ceiling. In a fire, the hot air can create a hot air layer at the ceiling which can prevent the carbon monoxide from rising to the ceiling mounted detector.
In an age where home security often includes physical safety barriers, it’s worth checking that you haven’t secured yourself so well into your house that you can’t get out in the case of an emergency. If you wake to a fire, which has already started to take hold, the house will be filled with thick black smoke which will hinder visibility. In order to avoid inhaling poisonous fumes, you are advised to stay close to the floor as a means of escape. Make sure you have allowed easy escape access through security gates, windows or doors. Everyone in the house should know the agreed escape route to avoid confusion amidst the panic.
Once everyone is safely out, contact the neighbours and call the emergency services (Fire Brigade 10177).
Nichola Allan is the managing director of G2 and has been with the company since its inception in 2005.
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