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Baltimore County Now

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Keyword: fire

photo of overloaded outletEd Riesner
Chief Electrical Inspector

We often hear in the aftermath of a house fire that the cause of the fire was electrical. Since we all have electricity in our homes it’s easy to we feel vulnerable and helpless if you don’t understand how electrical fires get started.

Most electric fires are caused by loose connections, dryer lint, improper use of extension cords, old, non UL approved appliances, or worn out and broken switches and receptacles. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, there are more than 26,000 residential fires each year linked to electrical problems. In 2012, 8.3% of fatal residential fires were due to electrical malfunctions.

A little knowledge and some diligence on your part can prevent most fires in your home.

1)    Empty the dryer lint tray after each load. Lint is extremely flammable and can be ignited by the heat from the dryer.

2)    Never use extension cords as a permanent wiring method. The wires in a cord are significantly smaller than the wiring in your walls and, over time will heat up and catch fire. Also consider the use of UL rated cords and the addition of surge protected power strips.

3)    Old appliances, switches, and receptacles should be replaced periodically.* They wear out and the connections inside separate slightly. When this happens, the electricity has to jump through the air to make the connection heating the air around the connection and starting a fire.

How often to change them depends on how often the device is used. Usually, light switches should be changed every 10 years at the latest. They crack internally and dry out. You can't see the problem so it's impossible to know that it needs to be changed. Use your best judgment with switches - the older switches were more solid and actually able to withstand much more that modern switches. Receptacles are a little bit easier. When the plugs no longer fit firmly in the socket it's time to replace the receptacle. When appliance cords become worn or the appliance begins behaving badly, it's time to replace or repair it.

4)    If you have aluminum wiring in your home always have a licensed electrician make any repairs. Improper connections, or connection to devices that are not designed for aluminum wiring can start a fire.

5)    If you observe your lights continually dim then grow bright, this could be a loose connection. Contact your utility company.

6)    If you hear a sizzling noise coming from a switch or appliance; Find the circuit breaker for that circuit and turn it off. Contact a licensed electrician to check the circuit.

7)    If you smell ozone, or an unusual electrical smell, this means that something electrical is heating up. Find the source and turn it off. Call a licensed electrician.

8)    If you observe smoke or sparking contact the Fire Department.

It is always a good practice to make sure that the circuits in the breaker box are properly identified. This will help you find the source of a circuit quickly if you have an emergency.

Always check to make sure any appliance you purchase is approved by UL or some other recognized testing laboratory.

Never use unlicensed electrical contractors. Baltimore County licenses over 4400 electrical contractors who are qualified to serve you.

If you have any questions or concerns you may call 410 887-3960 Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.


photo of person lighting candlesLouise Rogers-Feher, Public Safety Office of Media and Communications

Candles and lights, synonymous with the holiday season, can pose a risk to safety. The Baltimore County Fire Department asks everyone to follow basic precautions as we move into the holiday season.

Candle safety

Candles pose one of the most serious home fire risks – especially during the holidays. During a five-year period, 2007-2011, a national average of 29 home candle fires was reported every day. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), there are over twice as many home fires caused by candles in December compared to the other months of the year. We are in the peak time of year for home candle fires as they are left unattended or placed too close to holiday decorations.

Candle placement is important. Never place a candle near curtains. A slight breeze coming from a window or door could easily ignite the curtain and start a fire. Set candles on stable surfaces. Aunt Mae’s antique table may look pretty but is it sturdy enough to take a bump without spilling over the candle?

Don’t leave candles lit when you’re not around. If you’re leaving the room, snuff or blow out the candles.

To get the most light from your candle, use a glass hurricane cover. They reflect the light giving a brighter glow. They are both pretty and safe.

Tea light candles should not be set out on their own. There are many safe and festive tea light holders that will fit any décor.

Never leave children or pets alone in a room with lit candles. Beyond the threat of fire, melted wax can cause severe burns.

The best way to avoid a problem is to invest in battery powered candles. They glow bright without risk of fire.

Bright lights and safety

Electric lights pose different problems. The NFPA states electrical problems were factors in one third of Christmas tree structure fires.

Always buy lights that are indoor and outdoor approved by Underwriters Laboratories (UL).

Throw away light sets with frayed wires. An exposed wire could cause a fire. You aren’t saving money if you wrap a light socket or frayed wire with electrical tape. And really, it looks bad.

When stringing outdoor lights, only use lights meant for the outdoors. Outdoor lights have plugs and sockets that are weatherproof. Rain, snow and wind can tear up decorations and pose an electrical hazard unless you use lights specifically designed for outdoor use.

Extension cords

The type of extension cord you use is important. Use a cord that is the right length for the job. Don’t connect one extension cord to another.

While you might want to hide the power or extension cords, don’t put them under rugs, carpets or furniture because this poses a fire hazard.

Common sense tells us not to run power cords or extension cords in high traffic areas. Someone could trip and pull the power plug out of the socket.

When using extension cords for outside lights and decorations, be sure that you’re using cords that are meant for outside.

Recycle your tree

Trees tell us when they’re done. Needles fall off. That’s your cue to get rid of the tree. The County will pick up trees at your house after Christmas and recycle them into mulch. It’s easy for you and great for the environment.

Enjoy the holidays.


graphic of storm clouds with lightningCaptain Lonnie Ledford, Baltimore County Fire Department

A few weeks ago, in Part 1 of this blog, I covered thunderstorm watches, warnings and a few safety tips. Let’s pick up right where we left off, including some tips that apply just as well to the winter storms that are just around the corner.

Lightning rods attached to structures provide the safest pathway to ground for homes and businesses. If your home does not have one, the current from a lightning strike may travel via the home’s electrical or plumbing systems and could start a fire.  Also, remember to unplug sensitive electrical equipment such as computers and entertainment systems that are susceptible to electrical surges. You should seek shelter when the first rumble of thunder is heard, because if you can hear the thunder, you are close enough to the storm to be struck by lightning.  Also, remain inside for at least one-half hour after the thunder stops. 

Another electrical hazard that may be encountered in a storm is the possibility of downed electrical wires.  DO NOT try to approach or move these wires as there may be a ground current that could be deadly. If in a vehicle, do not try to drive over wires on the ground or under hanging wires near a roadway. Getting within several feet of a downed wire may cause it to arc.  If the wire is arcing or smoking, call 911 to report the hazard.

Downed power lines routinely lead to power outages in an area. Caution should be used when dealing with these situations as well.  Battery powered lights should be used instead of open flame candles and oil lamps due to their inherent fire dangers.  Portable generators produce deadly carbon monoxide gas that can build up and create a toxic atmosphere inside of a structure.  Several fatalities have been attributed to operating portable generators inside or too close to an occupied structure. Also, take care to utilize the proper gauge extension cords with the generator and do not overload them. 

Wind created by a severe thunderstorm can also be deadly.  Loose debris can be blown into the air and cause damage to structures and injure people.  If you do not have permanent mounted and operating shutters on your home, closing the blinds and drapes can provide a slight buffer against debris that may break and enter a window.  A heavy plastic trash bag or a tarp and duct tape should be available as a temporary repair in case of a window being broken during a storm.  Make a list of items that you want to bring inside in case of a severe thunderstorm.  Remember to include items such as plants, pool items, wind-chimes and flags.   Patio furniture, grills and items that are too large to be brought inside or cannot be placed in a garage or shed should be tied down and secured.  If there are large trees on your property they should be trimmed regularly to ensure that there are no dead branches that could be broken and fall in high winds.  Dead trees near a structure should be removed to prevent damage due to being blown over in a storm. 

Flash flooding commonly leads to flooded roadways. NEVER try to drive through standing or moving water. It only takes eighteen inches of water for a vehicle, including trucks and SUV’s, to become buoyant. Moving water can then push the vehicle sideways and it may rollover trapping occupants inside. When in doubt: Turn Around Don’t Drown!

Use easy to understand language to explain the sights and sounds that may be experienced by young children during a thunderstorm.  Once they understand what is making the “loud boom and bright light” outside, it may help reduce their apprehension and anxiety during a storm. 

Lastly, every home should have an emergency plan and an emergency kit that includes at a minimum:

·         enough food and water to last for 72 hours per person

·         a flashlight with spare batteries

·         a battery operated radio or weather radio

Severe weather planning resources can be found at:

·         The National Weather Service

·         Ready.gov

·         Baltimore County’s Emergency Management web site


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