New system could warn of fires outside the house

WASHINGTON — Fairfax County’s fire department is developing a system to counter a growing problem: fires that start outside homes while people inside have no idea what’s going on.

“I have actually responded to a structure fire before, as a company officer, where people were eating their dinner at the dinner table and the outside of their house was on fire and the fire department was breaking through their door to let them know that their house was on fire,” says Fire Chief Richard Bowers.

Fires outside homes can be caused by cigarettes, improperly positioned fire pits, fireplace ashes that are disposed of improperly or by grills that are positioned too closely to vinyl siding.

The Linear Heat Detecting System being developed by the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department for residential use is primitive, but effective, Bowers says.

“It’s basically a wire that heats up and sends an electronic signal that would be connected to your home smoke alarm system or an independent alarm.”

The system currently is being refined and perfected so it can be presented to manufacturers and receive UL safety certification.

“It’s about life safety. If you’re notified there’s a fire than you have an opportunity to get out. If you don’t know there’s a fire you have less time to get out,” Bowers says.

In addition to Fairfax County’s outdoor early alert system, the Prince William County Fire Marshal’s office is conducting tests to develop best practices recommendations for the placement of grills and other heat sources.

“We want to clarify and define how these fires start, such as when the venting from a gas grill blows onto the house,” says Prince William County Battalion Chief and Deputy Fire Marshal Thomas Jarman.

Portable fire pits and chimineas also can pose fire hazards.

“We had a fire no less than a week ago in Loudoun County where their deck caught on fire from the ashes of their outdoor portable fire pit,” says Linda Hale, chief fire marshal for Loudoun County.

Both Hale and Jarman warn that portable fire pits should only be placed on surfaces of earth, stone or brick — not on an outdoor deck.

“Don’t put it on anything combustible. Don’t put it on your deck,” Hale warns.

Jarman adds that that warning extends not only to wood decks, but the new composite decks: “They melt and actually will combust.”

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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