Chances are your kids have come home with fire safety colouring books after firefighters visited their class or daycare; they’ve practised fire drills and maybe they’ve even gone on a field trip to the local fire station. But do you actually try out the stuff they’ve learned at home? Here’s what you need to know to help keep your family safe.
“Kids have a fair bit of experience with fire, but usually with very small flames that are easy to put out, like birthday candles, so they have overconfidence in their ability to handle it,” says Robert Cole, a fire safety educator in New York. He adds that fire is often a big part of family celebrations—in addition to lighting candles for birthdays and religious holidays, there are sparklers, campfires and barbecues—so kids associate it with fun and excitement. He’s not suggesting that you skip any of these things, but rather recognize how kids can be confused when they get mixed messages about fire.
Kids six and under just aren’t cognitively capable of understanding complicated cause and effect (like how a knocked-over candle can ignite the napkins and then the tablecloth and then the curtains) and how fast fire can spread, he says. Regardless of their age, the message should be that matches, lighters and candles are grown-up tools. “The grown-up’s job is to use them safely and put them away properly, and the kid’s job is to come and tell the parent if we leave matches or lighters out,” he explains.
“A working alarm reduces your risk of dying in a fire by half,” says Cole. “Most fires happen during the day, but most fatal fires happen at night because people are overcome by smoke [before].” Your first job is making sure that smoke alarms are installed on every level of your home, inside or just outside of bedrooms. St. John Ambulance recommends checking the alarms monthly, changing the batteries annually (some sources say biannually when the clocks change) and replacing the whole unit every 10 years. Don’t assume your kiddos will wake up with the alarm, though—several studies have found that half of kids sleep right through it. Carbon monoxide detectors in or just outside bedrooms are also a must and should be checked and replaced regularly (look at the manufacturer directions). For both kinds of alarms, write the expiration date right on it.
Go over your family’s escape plan for every room in the house. Ideally, you have at least two exits (the door and a window) from every room. It’s important to do a physical walk-through with the kids to see if the window is big enough and can be opened, and talk about emergency-only situations where, yes, it is really okay to remove a screen or go through the window with a grown-up even if you’re on the second floor. Say, “Pretend you hear the alarm or smell smoke, and you’re in a room with the door closed. Show me how you feel the doorknob and door to see if it’s hot. If it’s hot, you don’t open the door and you find another way out of the room.” If you live in a high-rise, make sure the kids understand what the fire protocol is and where all the stairwells are.
“Practise your escape plan, or at least walk through it, twice a year,” says Cole. “That way you’ll realize if something’s not working so you can adjust.” Part of that plan can be for parents and guardians to know ahead of time who is going to get which dependent, be it a child, an elderly person or someone who is living with disability. Agree on a meeting place outside. Do some role-playing to teach your kids how to dial 911, too.
Cooking is one of the leading sources of house fires and injuries from fire. Enforce a kid-free zone at least a couple of feet away from the stove and turn pot and pan handles inwards, away from the stove’s edge. (When are kids old enough to make safe decisions about cooking on the stove? It will depend on the kid, but most are okay around age 11.) Keep paper towels, tea towels, potholders, oven mitts and other flammable stuff well away from the burners. Use a kitchen timer to make sure you don’t forget what you’ve got on the go.
Any frayed cords on hair dryers or lamps? Cords running under rugs? Cheap dollar-store chargers? Are you using extension cords or multi-outlet converters for appliances? All those are in the “no way” category, says St. John Ambulance.
Careless smoking accounts for nearly a quarter of house fires. Don’t allow smoking in your home and make sure that outdoor smokers have access to a can filled with sand to confirm their butts are completely out.
Kids usually remember the “stop, drop and roll” advice for putting out flaming clothing, but it’s always good to remind them. Also talk about how it’s important to crawl or crouch close to the floor during a real fire because that’s where the best air is, and how they can use a piece of clothing to cover their mouth and nose.
Have a fire extinguisher on every level of your home and know how to use it on small fires—see if your local fire department has demonstrations. (For most extinguishers, you use the “PASS” method: pull the safety pin, aim the hose, squeeze the handle, sweep the extinguisher back and forth.) There isn’t a general recommended age for kids to know how to use an extinguisher, so that’s up to your family to decide. Check its expiry date when you check your smoke alarms. Some fire safety educators also recommend that if you haven’t practised using a fire extinguisher, sometimes it’s better to forget fiddling with the extinguisher in the moment and just get outside and call 911. Some people stay inside too long trying to get the extinguisher to work and suffer from smoke inhalation. So either practise or just get out.
Explain to your kids that if there’s a fire in the toaster oven, microwave or oven, the door should stay shut to contain the flames. A stovetop grease fire needs baking soda or an all-purpose fire extinguisher (which can be used on an electrical or grease fire), not water, which can spread flames. Cole recommends keeping a lid by the stove to smother grease fires.
Smaller kids often hide in small spaces like under the bed or a closet during a fire, says Cole, either because that makes them feel safe or because they’re afraid of a firefighter in full gear. That’s a big mistake. “Don’t hide, go outside,” can help them remember. Another common kid issue is wanting to go back and get a treasured item like a stuffie or (gulp) a pet, so emphasize that it’s essential to get out safely right away, and that you can tell the firefighters about your pet when they arrive.
Most of all, just have the conversation and revisit it a couple of times a year. “The most common thing for parents is not saying anything and missing the opportunity,” says Cole.
It can be a bit of a balancing act to talk about fire safety realistically without freaking out your younger child. One good book is No Dragons for Tea: Fire Safety for Kids (and Dragons) by Jean E. Pendziwol, who wrote the book when her daughter Erin was afraid of fire.
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