Baltimore County Now
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.
BaltimoreCountyFire 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.
The Baltimore County Fire Department wishes you a happy and safe holiday season!
Baltimore County Fire Chief John J. Hohman
In my 35 years in the Fire Service, I’ve seen how advances in technology, equipment and building codes have saved lives. One of the most important advances is one of the most humble: the small, inexpensive carbon monoxide detector.
Here in Baltimore County, the Fire Department responds to a growing number of calls involving carbon monoxide (CO) gas – and that is a good thing. Why? Because the calls are generated by CO detectors that are alerting residents to a potentially deadly problem before it becomes deadly.
In recent years and following a number of CO tragedies, Baltimore County enacted legislation requiring CO detectors in all rental housing and in some owner-occupied residences. During November, fire crews responded to 50 CO calls – none of them involving serious injury.
I can’t overestimate how dangerous CO – which kills by robbing oxygen from the blood – is. Carbon monoxide is produced during the burning of fossil fuels – oil, gas, coal, propane, wood. If your home includes an appliance that runs off of one of these fuels, CO is an issue for you. The causes of CO buildup are varied, everything from malfunctioning gas stoves to a blocked fireplace flue.
CO calls tend to increase during periods of extreme heat or cold, when houses are closed up tightly and appliances are running. Landlords and homeowners who have invested in energy saving enhancements – new windows, for example – should know that one downside to such energy efficiency is that it limits the air flow that helps dilute CO when a leak occurs.
In such homes, the deadly gas has nothing to do but build up – and because of its unique characteristics victims can be overcome without ever knowing what happened. You can’t see or smell CO, and the early symptoms – headache, nausea, aches – are so commonplace that people have no idea they’re being poisoned.
People ask, “What is the acceptable level of carbon monoxide?” The answer is that CO is not acceptable, certainly not over a long period of time. At low levels, it will make you sicker and sicker the longer you’re exposed to it. At high levels, it can kill within hours.
This is why the CO detector is so important. It tells you the gas is there. The detector sounds an alarm when the gas reaches 35 parts per million. This is a level low enough not to make you sick – at least not at first – but high enough to tell you something’s wrong.
Your alarm doesn’t do you any good if you rob the batteries or ignore it when it goes off. If it sounds, call 911 and get out of the house. Here’s what you can expect, once fire crews arrive:
- Firefighters will use special gas meters to measure the level of CO.
- Crews will attempt to identify the source of the CO.
- Crews will ventilate the house, mitigating the hazard by diluting the gas with fresh air.
- Firefighters will not attempt to repair heating units, water heaters, fireplaces and other fuel-burning appliances. Such repairs are the property owner’s responsibility.
- Firefighters will shut down and advise the residents not to use any appliance they believe is causing the problem.
- If you live in a rental property and the level of CO is 50 parts per million or more, firefighters will contact the Office of Permits, Approvals and Inspections. The building inspector will visit the site at a later date to certify that the problem has been repaired by a licensed expert.
Along with installation of detectors, basic home maintenance – cleaning your chimney and fireplace regularly, checking gas-fueled appliance connections on a regular basis – is essential to preventing problems with CO.
If you rent your home or apartment, ask your landlord if the building uses fossil fuel-burning appliances and make sure the property owner has complied with the law requiring CO alarms. If the answer is no, contact the Office of Permits, Approvals and Inspections at 410-887-6060.
Carbon monoxide alarms are inexpensive, easy to install, readily available and effective. There is no reason why any of us should fall prey to this particular hazard any longer.