Fire Safety Guide for Seniors: Be Prepared Indoors and Outside

fire safety

This summer is breaking records for heat and lack of rainfall[1]. Blend those not-so-good conditions together and you get a significant fire hazard. Not only is there a serious concern of outdoor fires when weather conditions are ripe for flames, but the situation indoors can also be concerning under certsin conditions – especially during the winter, when we light up our fireplaces and bring out the space heaters.

Knowing how to handle a fire emergency is important for everyone, but especially for those who are most at risk. That includes those over the age of 65, who are twice as likely to be killed or injured by fires as the rest of the population, according to the National Fire Protection Association. The Sandy Spring Fire Department in Maryland says those over the age of 65 having a 2.7 times greater risk of dying in a fire than the general population, while those who are 85 or older have a 3.8 times greater risk. In fact, although older adults make up 15% of the total population, they suffer over 40% of fire deaths[2].

Being alerted to a fire is the first step in making sure you stay safe. You should have smoke detectors in your home on every level, especially inside and right outside of sleeping areas. Those smoke detectors need fresh batteries at least once a year, and need replacing every 10 years. Furnaces and chimneys need professional maintenance once a year. Opt for a smoke detector that is also a carbon monoxide detector. While you’re replacing your smoke detectors at the 10-year point, make sure you are getting a checkup on your electrical system too[3].

When it comes to fire, prevention is always the most important part. Preventing a fire from starting in the first place is the best route to take, whether it’s indoors or outdoors. Of course, there are sometimes things that you cannot control, such as the path of a wildfire. But there are still things you can do to protect yourself if a fire does break out.

Preventing Fire Danger and Injury Indoors

There are some simple, common sense things you can do to prevent fire. But there are also some fire prevention points that specifically help ensure the elderly stay safe in their own homes. We’ve detailed many of these below, but keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list:

·         Know what to do in the event of a fire. The information learned here can save your life if a fire does occur.

·         Consider sleeping in a room on the ground floor of your home, especially if you have mobility issues. This can make it much easier to escape if a fire starts in your home at night.

·         Keep your bedroom door closed while you are sleeping. This can help slow the spread of smoke and flames.

·         Install appropriate smoke detectors. If they are connected to each other, that’s even better, as when one sounds off, they all do. Make sure there is one smoke detector outside of every bedroom and one inside every sleeping area[4]. Test them all once a month.

·         What if you are deaf or hard of hearing? There are smoke detectors that flash with bright strobe lights or get your attention with vibration. This guide offers more information on fire safety products for the hearing-impaired.

·         Make sure you can get out of the home. Older homes often have windows that are painted shut or otherwise won’t open. They might have doors that are just off-kilter enough to make them tough to open. If you live in a high-rise apartment, keep in mind that they might have windows designed not to open at all; if you live in an urban area, you might have bars over your windows that make the process of opening them much more difficult. Assess your situation and make sure you have pathways to get out.

·         Keep your home free of clutter. Not only does extra stuff create an obstruction and fall hazard, it provides more fuel for a fire.

·         Conduct fire drills on a regular basis so everyone in the home knows how to get out in the event of an emergency. These drills can help you pinpoint potential problems and solve them well before an actual fire becomes an issue.

·         Practice using a fire extinguisher. You want to be familiar with it before you have to use it! And if you do use one, remember that it’s only effective against small fires. Larger fires, such as those that have already engulfed a wall, are a job for the fire department.

·         Wear a medical alert pendant at all times and never hesitate to press the button in the event of an emergency, including fire. Precious seconds can mean the difference between life and death.

·         Take special care when cooking. The Department of Fire Services in Massachusetts points out that cooking is the leading cause of fire injuries to those over the age of 65. To stay safe in the kitchen, wear short or well-fitting sleeves while cooking and never leave your cooking unattended. Use a timer when you cook, opt for lightweight pans that are easier to move, and keep a lid handy to place over a pan full of ingredients if they ignite[5].

·         Keep medication side effects in mind. Do you take medicine that makes you drowsy? It’s especially important to have the loudest smoke alarm possible and to avoid doing things that might overwhelm you and spark a fire; for instance, don’t cook when you’re feeling drowsy from anything, including prescription or over-the-counter medication. (Pro tip: If the instructions warn you to not drive or use heavy machinery when taking the medication, it’s best not to cook, either.)

·         If you smoke, always smoke outside, with no exceptions.

·         Never smoke near an oxygen source. The oxygen could ignite unexpectedly.

·         Never overload power strips or outlets, as this can spark an electrical fire. And remember that extension cords are designed for temporary use, never as a permanent solution.

·         Keep space heaters at least three feet from anything that can burn. Make sure this rule applies to all sides of the heater, even the ones that aren’t forcing out heat.

·         If you use a fireplace, learn how to use one safely.

·         Install nightlights around the home to help you see in the dark. Make sure that the nightlights are not dependent upon electricity; look for battery or solar-powered nightlights that will shine even if a fire knocks out the power.

·         The U.S. Fire Administration recommends a home assessment to help keep you safe from fire. Get in contact with your local fire department to set one up. 

Preventing Fire Danger or Injury Outdoors

Even if you face a wildfire risk, there are things you can do to keep yourself and your home safer. Remember, preparation is the key to safety, so think about how you would handle an approaching wildfire or even a small backyard flare-up well before it happens.

·         After smoking outside, use an appropriate container a short distance away from the home to contain butts and debris from smoking devices.

·         Keep a small fire extinguisher handy when using any outdoor grills, bonfires, fire pits, and the like.

·         When using grills, keep them at least 10 feet away from the house and any other structures[6]. Never use a grill in an enclosed area or under anything hanging too close, such as an awning.

·         Drop anything that might cause a fire, such as ashes from your fireplace or spent charcoal from your grill, into a fire-proof container and keep it well away from the house.

·         If you live in an area where wildfires can occur, pay close attention to news reports and the locations of the fires in your area. Pay attention to all recommendations or evacuation orders from local fire personnel.

·         Be prepared for evacuation. If you live in a fire-prone area, having a go-bag is a must. This bag should contain important paperwork, extra prescriptions, an extra pair of glasses, a set of clothing, and any specialty items you might need if you had to be away from home for an extended period of time. A mobile medical alert with fall detection is perfect in any emergency.

·         Create a “defensible space” around your home. That means that nothing flammable should be within 30 feet of your home. Non-combustible materials, such as gravel or concrete, are recommended. Keep all vegetation to a bare minimum in this defensible area[7].

·         Consider installing exterior sprinkler systems. Though these won’t save your home, they might buy you more time to get away from an approaching fire[8].

What to Do If a Fire Sparks

When a fire does start, seconds become precious. An emergency response solution could literally save a life. How you handle a fire depends upon whether it’s inside or outside your home.

Most importantly: Get out of the home, or get out of the area in the event of a wildfire. Have a plan in place to do both, and practice that plan on a regular basis. Remember, knowing what to do in the event of fire, and doing it quickly, can save your life.

If you are dealing with a fire inside the home:

·         When you’re in the kitchen, keep a lid handy to cover a pan that flares up.

·         Remember that you should smother flames rather than outrun them. Use a bathrobe, coat, blanket, or other thick material to put out flames on yourself or someone else.

·         Remember to “stop, drop, and roll.” Do this by lowering yourself to the ground, covering your eyes with your hands, and rolling across the ground to extinguish flames on your clothing.

·         If you can use a fire extinguisher on a small fire, do it immediately. However, if that fire extinguisher isn’t enough to put out the flames, get out of the house. Don’t try to save anything except your life – just go!

·         Keep any mobility devices, such as a walker or cane, right next to your bed so you can use them immediately to help you get out of the home.

·         Get as low as you can. Smoke rises, so the clearest air will be close to the floor.

·         Press the button on your medical alert device. Do this immediately, even if it appears you’ve smothered the fire or put it out with an extinguisher. Smoke inhalation is a serious concern and can cause significant health issues or even death if not treated quickly.

If you are dealing with a wildfire or outdoor fire:

·         Close the lid and all vents on a grill that has flared up with flame. This will smother the fire by taking away the oxygen it needs to grow.

·         Keep a fire extinguisher handy if you are grilling, using a fire pit, or otherwise working with open flame.

·         If you live in an area prone to wildfire, stay on the lookout for smoke and flame.

·         Follow all instructions from fire officials. If they tell you to evacuate, do it right away. If you need assistance in doing so, let them know – they will help you.

·         If you have mobility issues, evacuate well before the order is given. This can prevent a desperate race against time and save your life.

·         Protect yourself from the smoke. Though you might not have to evacuate your home due to wildfire, the smoke from the fire can easily reach you anyway, and might cause serious problems. The CDC says that older adults are at greater risk of injury from wildfire smoke, especially those who have chronic conditions that make it hard to breathe, such as COPD. Stay indoors as much as possible, using a breathing respirator if necessary, and get out of the area if you can.

·         Do not try to save your home from a wildfire. Though it is a tragic situation, don’t reach for the water hose and hope to battle the flames. Leave the home and everything inside it (unless you have been given the go-ahead by fire officials to collect a few things). Material possessions can be replaced – your life cannot be.

Being prepared for a fire is the best way to ensure that you walk away from one alive. Though we have provided a good overview here, there is always more to learn. These outreach materials from the U.S. Fire Administration can provide further details and information on what to do to prevent and escape from fires.

As always, Alert1 wishes you good health and safety at all times!