Winter Safety Reminders

As we dust off our down comforters, freshen our winter coats, and warm up our apple cider, it’s the time of year that we enjoy curling up with loved ones under the comfort of warm blankets by the crackle of a fireplace.  If you don’t have a fireplace, you might plug in your space heater, or light a few candles to add cozy ambience to our homes. While we face the approach of cooler weather, it’s important to remember basic safety tips that can keep your family safe all winter.

According to the National Fire Prevention Association, an astonishing 43% of home heating fires are caused by space heaters1.  If you’re purchasing a space heater for the first time, look for ones that do not have an exposed heat coil, and opt for one that has a fully-enclosed heating mechanism.  Space heaters with an exposed heating element could be temptations for small fingers, wayward pet tails, or passing accidents. Keep all space heaters – especially ones that have an exposed heat coil – at least three feet away from all pieces of fabric and soft furniture.

If you’re going to use any form of heating system in your home – from candles to fireplaces – be sure to check not only your fire alarm battery, but also your carbon monoxide (CO) detector.  Carbon monoxide is an odorless and colorless gas, so without a working detector, victims may never be aware they’re being poisoned until an alarm sounds. Those without a functioning alarm system may not be as fortunate until it’s too late.  As the weather cools outside, we tend to keep our windows closed. This can cause a build-up in carbon monoxide. If your alarm sounds, open all windows immediately and call 911. You may not see an emergency, but the fire department has the equipment to ensure you can safely return to your home.  Look for the NFPA 720 standard on the packaging to ensure you own a compliant and reliable detector. Spend a few extra minutes to read the manufacturer’s specifications that accompany the CO detector. It will indicate how often the detector needs to be tested.

The same practical advice may also apply to lighting decorative holiday candles in your home.  Keep them away from fabrics, pets and small hands, and appropriately enclosed or at a safe distance from the surrounding holiday decorations.  Set a reminder on your phone or a little sticky note on your refrigerator to remember to blow out the candles before the end of the night. With so many activities taking place during the holidays, it can be easy to forget about an unattended candle.

Nothing can brighten the cold winter nights like the comfort of a fireplace.  The chimney, the flue, and the equipment surrounding the fireplace are all necessary to ensure safety within the home.  At the most basic level, a fire starts with wood. Use hard, dry wood that hasn’t been freshly cut, and has had time to fully dry out.  Don’t use wood high in sap because the moisture will travel up into the flue, create a buildup of sap, and cause a flue fire.  Pine or maple woods are not advisable to use; although it burns quickly it also contains sap.  The cords of wood from your local convenience or grocery store are typically sufficient for home fireplace use.  Do not mix wood with Duraflame logs; the two can present a toxic mix that has been known to create an abundance of sparks.

As for the equipment surrounding your fireplace, make sure the damper works in the flue.  The damper shouldn’t be clogged or caught in order to prevent a buildup of carbon monoxide in the house.  A clean glass or metal screen ensures that sparks don’t reach your living room rug, floor, or furniture. If you have a gas fireplace, ensure that it is properly inspected.  Gas fireplaces do present a danger of leaking and should be serviced regularly. At the minimum, if you haven’t used your gas fireplace for a long period of time, have it inspected and cleaned before you light it for the first time, even to test if it works. Make sure the gas fireplace also has a screen, even a glass panel, to ensure the gas exhaust is being properly contained and is ventilating properly. Finally, it is always a good idea is to keep a fire extinguisher nearby. It’s better to call someone you love during the holidays than a crime scene cleaner to address an avoidable accident. Remember, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

  1. “Space heaters account for 43 percent of U.S. home heating fires and 85 percent of associated deaths”, NFPA, January 9, 2018, https://www.nfpa.org/News-and-Research/News-and-media/Press-Room/News-releases/2018/Space-heaters-account-for-43-percent-of-US-home-heating-fires-and-85-percent-of-associated-deaths