Baltimore County News
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.
Revised April 6, 2016