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Ask a Firefighter: Keep your family warm and safe this winter with these tips
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By Captain Jane Perkins
February 7, 2021

Ask a Firefighter: Keep your family warm and safe this winter with these tips

With winter’s coldest months upon us, we are all looking for ways to beat the frigid temperatures. Local residents want to know how to stay warm and safe this winter. Electrical fires in our homes claim the lives of 280 Americans each year. Your local fire department wants you to know that winter electrical fires can be prevented. By understanding the risks involved with electrical wiring and appliances and recognizing the signs of electrical hazards, you can stay warm and safe with your family this winter season.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), there are nearly 47,800 home electrical fires each year, and about half of these involve lighting equipment or home electrical wiring. Sadly, home electrical fire deaths accounted for the highest share of civilian deaths (60%). These fires peak between midnight and 8 a.m., when families are likely unaware of any problems. Nearly 50% of electrical fire deaths in homes occur during the winter season.

The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) reports that heating fires in homes are to blame for nearly 20% of structure fires each year. That percentage jumps to nearly 30% during the coldest months. The USFA points out that many of these fires are caused by incorrectly installed wiring, overloaded circuits, and misused extension cords. The following electrical fire safety tips can help you maintain a fire-safe home this winter season.

Developing an awareness of the electrical hazards in your home can save your life. You may hear, see, or even smell electrical dangers at home. Lights that flicker for no apparent reason are an indication that something is not right. If a light switch does not turn the lights on, or even worse, it does not turn them off, this is not safe. Appliances, outlets, or switches that are warm to the touch, spark, or make sizzling sounds may be an indication of something burning behind the walls.

Be on the lookout for outlets and switches that appear discolored, as well as outlets, extension cords, or surge protectors that are overloaded. These devices are intended for use with a very specific number of appliances. Overloading them is extremely unsafe. Finally, circuit breakers are designed to cut off the electricity in order to prevent electrical fires. This means if a breaker trips, something is wrong. Be especially concerned if a breaker will not reset.

If you think you have an electrical problem, call an electrician, however if there are any signs or indications of a possible fire, call 911 immediately. These indications could include a light smoke condition, the smell of plastic burning, the smell of an acrid odor, or sizzling sounds.

While knowing the signs of a potential electrical hazard can be life-saving, understanding how to prevent electrical fires may provide peace of mind. The NFPA suggests that you plug only one heat-producing appliance directly into a wall outlet at a time. For example, your coffee-maker and your microwave should be plugged into different outlets. Experts suggest that extension cords should never be used with a heat-producing appliance and should never be placed under a rug. If an appliance has a three-prong plug, only use it in a three-slot outlet. Never force it to fit into a two-slot outlet, and never use an adapter that defeats the purpose of a grounded plug. Routinely check your electrical appliances and wiring, and replace the wires and cords if they are frayed, worn, or damaged. Since water and electricity do not mix, you should pay special attention to electrical appliances that are used on the wet kitchen counter and in the bathroom.

Winter storms in New England can cause additional hazards. The use of alternative heating devices, such as space heaters, increase during winter storms. If you need to use a space heater to stay warm, be sure to keep all flammable items at least 3 feet away, and plug the heater directly into an outlet. Adverse weather events can damage utility lines and frozen water pipes can burst and cause additional safety hazards.

An awareness of the electrical hazards that exist in every home, along with the knowledge of how to prevent these hazards, are the best way to keep stay warm and safe this winter. In the event that you do have an electrical issue in your home, working smoke alarms are essential for alerting your family of the danger. Working smoke alarms are particularly important to survival in the overnight hours when electrical fires can go unnoticed. In addition to smoke alarms, have a fire extinguisher readily available to help you contain a fire before it gets too big. If there is a fire in your home, your family should quickly implement your exit plan to get all family members outside to safety. Once safe, call 911 immediately. For more information on home electrical fires, visit www.nfpa.org.

This column was written by Jane Perkins, Fire Safety Specialist for the Rhode Island Southern Firefighters League and Captain of the Watch Hill Fire Department. If you would like to see a question answered in this column, please e-mail her at askafirefighter@yahoo.com.

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