Jeff Perkins, a project manager in Skanska’s Metro New York office, was asleep with his family on a recent morning when they were awoken at 4:30 a.m. by the blaring of his home’s smoke alarm. The alarm sounded just in time: while there wasn’t much smoke inside their Mays Landing, N.J., home when they awoke, the fire soon engulfed their home, destroying it. Other than a broken arm sustained by his six- year-old son during the evacuation, Perkins escaped unharmed, along with his wife and four children. Fire department officials later determined that the fire started at an outside grill, and quickly spread to the adjacent wooden backdoor steps.
In the spirit of sharing knowledge, Perkins compiled a list of fire safety best practices. No doubt there are some items here from which we all can learn!
• Smoke detectors: Ensure smoke detectors are tested monthly and are in working order. Keep an additional detector on hand in case one goes bad, so there is no excuse to not replace immediately. Use models that allow you to record your voice as most children do not wake up to the beep of a traditional alarm. (Perkins credits the smoke detectors with saving his family. He said: “My daughter’s bed was minutes – at best – from being engulfed in flames. If the detector that first picked up the smoke had failed, she wouldn’t be alive.”)
• Fire extinguishers: Check fire extinguishers regularly and replace old extinguishers. Manufacturers recommend replacing extinguishers every five to seven years, even if the gauges still indicate full. Shake them every few months to keep the powder from caking on the bottom. (Perkins said that the fire extinguisher closest to the fire was seven years old, and while it indicated full, it didn’t work.)
• Fire drills: Conduct fire drills in the home with children.
• Make a plan: Parents should discuss expectations during a fire, such as who gets which children, where to meet and how to get out if trapped. Discuss with neighbors to make arrangements for the children to be brought into their home so they don’t witness the fire. (Said Perkins: “My kids were almost immediately inside a neighbors’ home watching TV. They saw very little of the damage and this will certainly help avoid long-term psychological impacts.”)
• Cell phones and keys: Keep cell phones and keys by an exterior door to easily get on the way out or after the fact. (Said Perkins: “Ours were not and we had to use a neighbor’s phone to call 911 and family. We were lucky that the fire police found my wife’s phone – amazingly still working – and all of our keys.”). Keep spare keys, cash, checks and an extra credit card in a fire box. (Said Perkins: “We did not, and had no way to make purchases or get cash until new cards arrived.”)
•Back-up your home computer: Make sure you back-up your computer to an external hard drive and store it in a fire box. (Said Perkins: “All of my home computer gear was untouched by the fire or smoke; however, the small ocean of water the fire department put into my house destroyed all electronics. I back-up my hard drive weekly and so everything on my computer is safe.”)
• Spare clothing: Keep a spare set of clothes at a family member’s house. Clothes shopping is the last thing on your mind, but having nothing to wear is difficult.
• Use waterproof containers: When storing memorabilia and other items in boxes or bins used waterproof containers. The fire department has one goal, to put out the fire. They will put water on every square inch of the house, move furniture, break windows and remove walls to do so. The water will take all the charred remains from upper floors to the lower floors. In many fires, more damage is due to water/mold than fire/smoke. (Perkins said that hours after the fire department had left, the backyard and basement had over a foot of water each.)
• Create a property list: Take a video camera and walk your house, filming inside every cabinet, drawer and closet, so that in the event of a fire you can more easily create your property list. This can take minutes to do but save you countless hours and expense later.