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Baltimore County Now

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Keyword: fire safety

photo of a person lighting a candleBattalion Chief Jennifer Utz

Everyone has a favorite time of year, and although I no longer welcome the cold Maryland winters, I do long for December. For me, it is truly the most wonderful time of the year. Whether cutting down a Christmas tree, decorating the house, baking cookies or socializing with friends, I couldn’t find more happiness than I do during this time of year.

Still, as I relax by the fire, watch the lights glimmer and listen to the sounds of the season, I am reminded of the danger that all of this beauty can bring. In my nearly 14 years with the Baltimore County Fire Department, I have witnessed a lot of misfortune – but it is especially devastating when fires happen at such a wonderful time of year.

The good news is that fire is preventable. Here are reminders to keep your family safe as you celebrate.

·        Cooking. Unattended cooking is the leading cause of house fires and associated injuries. When cooking your holiday favorites, stay in the kitchen at all times. Do not let children near ovens and range tops. If the oven catches fire, turn it off, keep the door closed and call 911. Always keep a lid nearby if a pot catches fire; use the lid to smother the fire. Never put water on a grease fire; it will spread the fire! Get out of the house, and stay out until the fire department arrives.

·        Decorations: Look for packages marked as flame resistant or retardant. Always keep combustible decorations away from any type of heat source. If you are using mini lights, string no more than three sets together and make sure the cords are not damaged. If you choose screw-in bulbs, use no more than 50 per set; and always check the manufacturers label on LED light sets for directions. Keep extension cords to a minimum, never run them under carpets, and if used outside keep plugs and cords free from standing water or snow. Do not use nails to hang lights, always use clips that won’t damage or cut through the cords. Call an electrician if lights flicker or fuses blow. Finally, always turn off lights and decorations when you go to bed or leave the house.

·        Candles:  Keep open flame candles at least 12 inches from anything that can catch fire. Watch children and pets carefully when using candles. Use a sturdy candle holder. Consider electric or flameless candles.

·        Christmas Trees:  The smell and tradition of a fresh cut tree is priceless. If your family chooses a live tree, keep it watered daily. Always unplug the lights before going to bed or leaving the home, and keep the tree at least three feet from heat sources.

·        Carbon Monoxide:  One final warning during this holiday season is to have working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. A faulty furnace, water heater or other gas appliance can emit carbon monoxide. Clogged chimneys, running vehicles and generators too close to the house also will cause a buildup of this deadly gas.

As you celebrate the holidays and spend time with family, remember these tips and stay safe!


Battalion Chief Jennifer Utz

During my career with the Baltimore County Fire Department, one particular fire stands out in my mind.

A family reported a house fire, and when we arrived we found a man with black soot on his face. He needed medical evaluation for smoke inhalation. When we asked him what had happened – how he was exposed to so much smoke – he said he had been trying to retrieve a high school ring.

Many of us can relate to his emotional connection with a special possession. But this person was lucky: His search for a replaceable object could have cost him his life.

According to the National Fire Protection Agency, 3,005 civilian fire deaths were reported in the U.S. during 2011. House fires accounted for more than 2,500 of those fatal fires, as well as 13,000 civilian injuries.

Although the rate of fire deaths has dropped over the past few decades, these numbers remain alarming because most fire deaths are so preventable. I’ve found that many, if not most, fire deaths or injuries occur when people make certain critical mistakes:

•    They delay getting out of the house. They check around the home to see if they can find out why they smell smoke. They run from room to room, grabbing items they want to save. They decide to call somebody- a spouse at work, for example- to ask what they should do.

If you see or smell smoke, or if a smoke detector activates, leave the home immediately. Once everyone is outside, call 911 either by cell phone or a nearby neighbor’s house. Let firefighters, who are trained and equipped, search for the source of a fire.

•    They run back inside. They get out safely, but go back into the house to try to save a child, pet, or special possession. Let firefighters, who are trained and equipped, perform rescues.

•    They panic, especially if an emergency occurs while they are sleeping. If you are sleeping and you hear the smoke detector or smell smoke, stay calm. Feel the bedroom door for heat, using the back of your hand. If the surface is hot, do not open it.

If possible, go to a window and make your escape that way. Or, wait at the window and wave your hands so the firefighters can see you. Stuff towels, sheets, or clothing at the bottom of the door to slow the spread of deadly smoke.

•    They underestimate the deadliness of smoke. Most victims die from smoke inhalation and toxic gases, not burns. If you can’t get out without traveling through smoke, stay low, cover your mouth and nose, and crawl to an exit.

•    They don’t install or properly maintain smoke detectors. At least one smoke detector should be installed outside of all sleeping areas. Smoke detectors should be tested monthly, and the batteries changed twice a year.

Too many times, people remove a battery from a smoke detector to stop it from alarming when the battery is low or when cooking, or because they need a battery for something else.

Our web site, www.baltimorecountymd.gov/firesafety, is a good place to start when making a home fire escape plan.

When I talk to citizens about home fire escape planning, I stress that it isn’t enough just to have a plan. The entire family needs to review and practice the plan a couple of times a year. That's the best way to avoid the kinds of mistakes that make an already traumatic event something much worse.


Use caution with candlesBaltimoreCountyFire DepartmentDivision Chief Michael Robinson

“Tis the season!” for celebrations, decorating, cooking shopping and all else related to sharing the joys and festivities of the holidays.   This is also a time when we see an increase in fires and related accidents.

In fact, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) from late November through January we typically see a spike in fires caused by Christmas trees, candles, lights and holiday cooking.   Over the last decade, these holiday-related fires have resulted in more than $1 billion in residential property losses and more than 200 lives lost. 

Your Baltimore County Fire Department urges you to take a few moments and consider some simple steps to assure your safety during this special time of the year.  Here are the top 10 tips that fire safety experts recommend you consider:

1.      Water your tree. If you choose a live Christmas tree, assure its freshness by making a fresh cut on the base of the tree before putting your tree into a sturdy stand.  Keep the needles moist by watering frequently (at least daily).

2.      Check your lights (maybe twice).   Be sure to use only outdoor lights outside.  Inspect all lights for fraying, damage and wear.  If wires are visible through the insulation, discard and replace the lights.  Look for cracked sockets and loose connections; if you find them, replace the string.  Never plug more than three strands of lights together; this may cause heating and failure of the wires. Also, use only lights from an approved laboratory, and look for a label such as UL (Underwriter’s labs) or FM (Factory mutual).  If no label, replace the lights.

3.      Plan your fire escape. This is a good time to make sure that you have two exits out of each room and to plan what you would do in the event of fire.  Be sure that you have working smoke detectors on each level and in each sleeping area of your home.

4.      Sleep safe; have a carbon monoxide detector. A CO detector should be on each floor of your home. Under Baltimore County law, CO detectors are required in all rental properties and in some owner-occupied homes. Place these near sleeping areas and test them regularly.

5.      Be “flame aware.” Maintain at least 3 feet of clearance of any materials around a fire place. That includes hanging Christmas stockings “by the chimney with care!”  Also do not leave candles unattended and teach your children to keep away from these and fireplaces.

6.      Clean up your wrapping paper. After opening wrapped gifts, take that paper and recycle it. Never burn it, as it may clog the chimney or spread fire as an ash.  Single- stream recycling in Baltimore County makes proper disposal of wrapping paper an easy task. 

7.      Check extension cords. Make sure that they are laboratory-approved, just like your lights.  Never staple, tape or run them under rugs.  Check the wattage rating, and don’t overload your electrical outlets.  If a circuit trips or a fuse blows, consider that is a warning that you are overloaded. Overloaded circuits pose a fire hazard!

8.      Christmas tree placement. Set up your tree away from fireplaces, vents and other heat sources.  The tree should also not block pathways or exits from a room.

9.      Decorate safely. Be careful in selecting tree ornaments that are glass or that have small pieces that can become choking hazards. When securing decorations, be careful not to tape, staple or tack them into wiring!

10.   Cook with caution. We tend to cook more and use more burners and stoves at once.  Watch for hot surfaces, overflowing pots/pans and never use a turkey deep fryer indoors.  These require a clear, open, outdoor area and are a frequent cause of fires. 

There are a variety of great online resources about holiday fire safety, including resources from the U.S. Fire Administration, and the National Fire Protection Administration,

The Baltimore County Fire Department wishes you a happy and safe holiday season!


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