5 Surprising Fire Safety Tips from a Longtime Fire Chief
By Ashley Peterson-DeLuca
Dan Miller has been fighting fires since he was 16 when he joined the Fire Cadets in his hometown of Yutan, Nebraska. Now the Fire Chief for the growing town of Columbus, Nebraska, with 40 years of firefighting experience, he and his department work to protect its residents from fires and other emergencies.
That's why the firefighters of Columbus and American Red Cross volunteers will Sound the Alarm in Columbus, as part of a national effort to educate 100,000 people about home fires. Volunteers will meet with residents, by appointment, outside their homes to share fire safety information and help them create an escape plan to practice their two-minute fire drill. Columbus residents who would
like to have Red Cross volunteers visit their homes on May 8 should call 833-422-1751.
No matter how fast firefighters respond, it may not be fast enough. In October 2020 tragedy hit Columbus. A family’s living room fireplace didn’t have its glass doors closed, letting a spark jump out and ignite nearby materials. And, with no batteries in their smoke detector, the sleeping family of four didn’t have a warning of the growing blaze. They all perished that weekend.
Fires like this push Chief Miller to reach out to his community about prevention. In support of Red Cross’s Sound the Alarm campaign, he shared five facts about fire safety that may surprise you:
1. No matter the age of your house, there are dangers to look out for.
In older homes, fires can often be started by fireplaces, wood stoves or alternate heating sources like space heaters. Chief Miller recommends ensuring that all your heat sources are at least two feet away from materials that can catch fire.
In newer homes, the danger comes from the way it’s built. Newer homes use synthetic materials that burn hotter and faster. Newer homes also tend to be bigger and have an “open concept” floorplan with high ceilings. This means that a fire has access to more air, helping it grow faster and stronger. A fire in a new home can go from a small burn to uncontrolled in less than five minutes.
This makes it even more important to detect and prevent fires.
2. Replace your smoke detectors every 10 years.
Most people know the phrase “Change Your Clocks, Change Your Batteries,” reminding homeowners to replace the batteries in smoke detectors twice a year. But did you know that smoke detectors are only good for about a decade?
In addition, while some modern smoke detectors have a long-lived lithium-ion battery or a battery backup, every smoke detector needs to be checked once a month. To make sure it’ll warn you of a fire, Chief Miller says, “Make sure your smoke detector makes the noise it is supposed to make every month.”
3. Housecleaning is fire prevention.
Decluttering doesn’t just make your house look better, it can also make it a little safer.
Piles of clothing, cardboard or paper can easily catch fire. Move them away from any heat source.
Don’t forget to declutter all the technology and heat sources plugged into your outlets. Overloading your outlets can cause a fire. In your garage, combustible liquids like gasoline should be given space and be stored properly too.
4. Potting soil can catch fire.
Fewer people are smoking cigarettes inside, which means smokers may be discarding their cigarettes into planters with potting soil. But potting soil isn’t just dirt. It is made of plant-based products that can catch fire and blow away on the wind. In the past five years, there has been an increase in the number of exterior fires, especially at apartment buildings. These fires often get a head start, growing into a big fire outside before anyone inside is aware of it.
5. It isn’t enough to just have a fire drill.
Chief Miller warns that you have less than five minutes to get out of your house. He says, “We don’t rise to the occasion, we fall back on our training.” Firefighters live by this motto and spend so much of their time training.
To make sure you can get out of your house quickly when you need to, he recommends making an escape plan and to practice it. Once you’re out of the house, stay out. Call 911 and don’t go back in.
In addition to these tips, the American Red Cross is also offering virtual educational visits this spring. To have a phone conversation with a Red Cross volunteer about home fire safety and preparedness, call 833-422-1751. The virtual educational opportunities are available to anyone, not just Columbus residents.