Fire safety tips for space-heater season

It’s getting to be the time of year for house fires connected to people’s attempts to stay warm.

The most obvious example consists of the fire in an apartment building in the Bronx, which killed 17 people; the deaths have been blamed on a space heater and malfunctioning safety doors that let smoke billow through the building.

Locally, two brothers died in Prince George’s County, Maryland, from carbon monoxide poisoning tied to a generator they had set up inside their house after their power went out in last week’s snowstorm, WTOP’s news partner NBC Washington reported.

Pete Piringer, the spokesman for the Montgomery County Fire and EMS, told WTOP on Tuesday that while year-round most house fires start in the kitchen and are related to cooking, the cold weather means that more fires start because of space heaters, fireplaces and other methods of heating.

His chief rule of thumb: “Give a space heater space.”

Piringer said space heaters need a circle of at least 3 feet of open space between them and anything that can burn – “whether it be the couch, the curtains, or even people for that matter.”

He said electric space heaters come with the kind and length of cord that’s appropriate for them, so plug them directly into the wall outlet – don’t run an extension cord.

And just like you wouldn’t walk away and leave food cooking unattended, don’t leave the room and leave a space heater running – and especially not overnight.

Other kinds of energy sources, such as generators and fireplaces that use fuel, are leaving you open to the possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning. Piringer said you can’t see or smell the gas, and the downside of today’s energy-efficient houses is that not much air leaks in. So there’s no better solution than a carbon monoxide detector – that’s separate from a smoke detector — with an alarm.

“If you have a significant leak, a moderate leak, and go to bed at night, you might not wake up if the leak is bad enough,” Piringer said.

Of course, the need for a smoke detector should go without saying, and if a fire does start, you need an escape plan.

“When I first got started in the business, you probably had 15 or 20 minutes to get out of your house if you have a fire,” Piringer said. “Now, you have two or three minutes. So it’s important to have a plan. Know what to do; practice it ahead of time; make sure that everybody at your house knows how to do it.”

One last point: Open doors means air flow, which is what fire feeds on to grow. Piringer said that if you leave the house because of a fire, close doors behind you as you go. In fact, it’s a good idea to close the bedroom doors as people go to sleep.

“Close before you doze. That might be the difference between life and death in some cases,” Piringer said.

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2012 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He went to George Washington University as an undergraduate and is regularly surprised at the changes to the city since that faraway time.

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