By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
The arrival of 2019 will also mark the onset of the three-month period during which Lower Alabama usually experiences its coldest weather. And the arrival of cold weather increases the odds of a devastating or fatal fire inside the home.
Although surveys indicate that most Americans believe otherwise, fire experts agree that in most cases individuals have as little as two minutes to escape a burning home before smoke and flames make escape a virtual impossibility.
Atmore Fire Chief Ron Peebles stressed that one of the major means of preventing loss of life to fire and smoke or complete loss of a residential structure to fire is the installation of devices that provide an early warning of potential disaster.
“That’s your lifesaver there, your smoke detector or fire alarm,” Peebles said during a discussion of fire safety in the home. “Most houses now have a smoke detector or fire alarm of some sort, and that has cut down the number of fatalities and injuries. These things also allow people to discover a fire quicker, so they can call the fire department quicker. A lot of times that prevents a house from being a total loss.”
He pointed out that state and local building codes now require that new homes have electrical smoke detectors with a battery backup. However, he said, battery operated detectors are also effective, if they are maintained properly.
“A battery-operated smoke alarm or fire alarm is certainly better than nothing,” he said. “But they have to have working batteries. The general rule is to change your batteries once a year, on your birthday, but we recommend that you also change them when cold weather gets here.”
The fire chief added that the American Red Cross, as part of its Sound the Alarm campaign, will furnish a free battery-operated smoke detector to anyone who requests one.
According to the organization’s website, more than 100,000 of the devices have been provided and installed since the fire safety initiative was started in 2014. To request one of the smoke detectors, residents of Atmore and the surrounding area may call the local ARC office at 368-3643 or 368-3003.
Peebles noted that another key early warning device for any home with propane, kerosene or a similar heat source is a carbon monoxide detector, which alerts residents when the home-heating fuel is not properly burning or when a flame has gone out and gas continues to escape.
“Carbon monoxide is the silent killer,” he said. “If a gas heater is not burning right, or if the flame goes out, it can be deadly. That goes for anything gas; even a water heater can go out and cause carbon monoxide to leak out.”
He recalled a local incident where such a detector saved an entire family.
“It was seven or eight years ago,” he said. “A whole family — I think it was the parents and two kids — took a nap. Carbon monoxide was filling their house, but they had a detector and it woke them up. We had to take the whole family to the hospital because of the carbon monoxide they had breathed before they woke up.”
He used a paradoxical statement to stress how crucial a role such detectors play.
“You could wake up dead if you don’t have a detector,” he said.
Peebles noted that there are several sources of house fires, including electrical shorts, but said that one above all others is responsible for a majority of residential blazes locally.
“Space heaters are the main thing when it comes to house fires,” he said. “I know that a lot of people have them; I have one myself. But you have to be careful with them.”
He noted that newer models have an automatic cutoff built into them, shutting them down if they tip over or if the wiring becomes too hot.
“I turn mine on while I’m in the room where it is, but when I leave that room, I don’t just turn it off, I unplug it,” he said. “Especially if you have one of the older types of space heater, you need to have a three-foot area on all four sides of it that is clear of anything that will burn.”
The fire chief added that two other sources of home heat, as well as an item used primarily for decoration and providing a pleasant scent, could turn deadly if they aren’t properly maintained.
“If you have a fireplace or wood-burning heater, you need to have your chimney cleaned before you start them up,” he said. “If the chimney has soot build-up or something like a bird’s nest in it, it could cause a house fire. And candles are another thing people have to watch.”
He urged people with fireplaces or any free-standing heat source to be careful to keep newspapers, clothing or other flammable objects away from them.
In summary, he said there was only one bit of advice he could offer.
“Whatever you do, however you heat your house, just be smart,” he said. “That’s the key to fire safety in the home; that’s the best advice I could give anybody.”