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What Firefighters Want You To Know
Recently I met up with three members of the New York City Fire Department at The Fire Zone in Rockefeller Center. I spoke with Lt. Frank Minetta and firefighter Chuck Kotov from the Fire Safety Education Unit, and Ned Coulter, a safety facilitator who gives tours and talks about fire safety at the Fire Zone. I asked them a bunch of questions about fire safety, and got some great answers – all from the perspectives of people who’ve been there and done that, with many decades of experience between them. We covered many areas, from what the public can do to make firefighters’ jobs easier at the scene of a fire, to why firefighters do what they do.
The Biggest Cause of Fires
According to Lt. Frank Minetta, most home fires start in the kitchen. Whether it’s food being left unattended while cooking, or an overly cluttered kitchen, the stove is definitely the source of most residential fires. Many of these fires are preventable. Things like paper towels and napkins shouldn’t be kept near appliances that get hot (I’m guilty of that one). Kitchen towels shouldn’t be kept on the oven door handle (yup, guilty of that one too). And children should never be left alone near the stove. “A little common sense can prevent fires,” says Frank.Most fires start in the kitchen, but there are things you can do to help prevent them. #KiddeSafety Click To Tweet
And if there is a cooking stove fire, try to turn off the heat source as quickly as possible. Shut off the stove. If the fire is in a pan and you can get a lid over it, that might help extinguish the flames. No matter what though, even if you manage to get the fire out, call the fire department (more on this later).
Ned Coulter pointed out that even though cooking stoves cause the most fires, most fire fatalities still come from smoking-related fires. This is because when people are cooking, it’s usually during the day and people are awake – they discover the fire more quickly and can either put it out, or escape in time. But fires caused by cigarettes usually happen after people have fallen asleep.
And according to Frank, the FDNY states that in about 70% of the fatal fires the homes didn’t have working smoke alarms. In fact, one of the deadliest fires in recent memory was in Brooklyn, where seven children died due to a kitchen fire. There was only one smoke alarm, even though the house was three stories, and the alarm was in the basement level. “There’s a program, a joint effort called Get Alarmed NYC, as a result of that fire, where they’ll install the alarms in the home. The more people that have working alarms, the better.” It’s a joint venture between the FDNY and the Red Cross, and you can sign up to get alarms installed on the Red Cross website.According to the FDNY, in 70% of fatal fires the home didn’t have working smoke alarms. #KiddeSafety Click To Tweet
I recently had to buy new fire extinguishers, and I bought a Kidde two-pack that had one multi-purpose extinguisher for ABC fires, and one specifically for kitchen fires that was rated for B & C fires only, with a specially-designed nozzle to help prevent splashing in the case of a grease fire.
I asked about the different types of fire extinguishers on the market. According to Frank, a multi-purpose extinguisher is recommended for home use. “Not all extinguishers are the same, but if they’re rated for ABC they’re rated for all fires. ‘A’ fires are ordinary combustibles: paper, wood, furniture, etc. ‘B’ is your liquids, possibly grease fires. And ‘C’ is electrical. So if you have an ‘ABC’ or multi-purpose extinguisher, you could use it on all three fires.” Ned also mentioned that he keeps a fire extinguisher in his car, something that had never occurred to me. (Kidde makes one especially for vehicles and boats.)
Frank pointed out, though, that if you’re not using a fire extinguisher on a day-to-day basis, it’s not a simple thing to use. (I can attest to this personally!) In some cases, you could exacerbate the problem.
I asked when someone should try to use a fire extinguisher to put out a fire, and when they should just get out. Frank said that the only time someone should try to put out a fire with a fire extinguisher is when they’re confident that it will actually do the job very quickly. “The clock is ticking from when a fire starts to where you may not be able to escape with your family.”
Ned pointed out that you also might think you know where a fire has started, but it might have traveled under the floor or up a wall, and is actually much bigger than you think it is. So the fire extinguisher is not going to help you in that case. “The other thing that people should know is if they’re going to use a fire extinguisher on a couch, or if the fire is seemingly in a wall, even if the fire extinguisher seems to have worked for them, by all means call the fire department. Don’t think that the fire is out. Fires can stay in cushions and things like that and they can smolder for quite some time. And the fire department can come and help you out with that and make sure that it’s not still in your walls or still in your couch or still in your bedding or wherever it was. Call the fire department. We’re always happy to come.”
Chuck Kotov added that sometimes they get to the address that reported the fire, and the person who called it in says that they put it out. But couches and things like that can reignite after twelve, even twenty hours. “We always go in and make sure. We have meters than can detect heat.”
Frank says he even keeps a fire extinguisher in his bedroom, which he said sounds funny to some people. But when his kids were younger he started thinking about what would happen if there was a fire in the middle of the night and he had to go get them. The extinguisher might be able to help clear a path to get to the kids and then escape. So fire extinguishers shouldn’t be thought of only for putting out fires, but for helping to escape them also.
How Can You Help Firefighters?
Frank says that the best thing you can do to help firefighters is to have an escape plan, similar to what they teach kids in fire drills at school. The best thing you can do is exit. Get to a safe location. “Now, if you’re awakened in the middle of the night by a working smoke alarm, and we have a smoke condition, we want to make sure that we get down low, stay low, follow the perimeter of room, feel the door for heat, get outside to a safe location. Close the door behind you. And get outside to a safe meeting place, which should be in the front of the home. I think that’s a big thing, is to escape to a safe location, not wasting time looking for things. Very very important.
“And then, any information you have: everybody’s out of the home, the doors are closed, the fire is in the kitchen which is off to the right…anything to that effect, you’re able to give.” He suggests that you put your important papers in a fireproof box so that you don’t have to worry about them, and put other things in an area where if you have to escape, you can scoop them and go without having to search for anything. Wallet, keys, phone, put them in your likely escape path before you go to bed.
Ned mentioned that children have a tendency to run and hide when there’s a fire, instead of trying to escape. They hide under beds or in closets. So you need to practice this stuff with your kids. “I’ll tell the kids to have some fun with dad: blindfold him, spin him around three times, and tell him to crawl out the front door.” The more familiar kids are with the escape plan, the more likely they are to try to use it instead of running from the firefighters and hiding.Kids tend to hide when there's a fire, so you should practice an escape plan w/them. #KiddeSafety Click To Tweet
Ned also thinks that one of the best things you can do to help the responding firefighters is to call them before things get out of hand. “They think for some reason that, oh gee, I can handle this myself. That’s one of the biggest mistakes.”
Another thing he says you can do to make things easier for firefighter trying to get into your home is to keep entranceways free of clutter. According to Ned, there are often long, narrow hallways leading to NYC apartments, and there are bicycles, shoes, skateboards, skis, etc. “These things are going to slow you down when you’re trying to escape, and they’re certainly going to be an encumbrance for the firefighters trying to get in.”
What They’d Like You To Know
For my last question, I asked them what they would like people to know about firefighters. And this is where they got especially emotional.
There’s a passion for it, to give something back. “In many cases, it’s almost a calling. You want to give something to your community,” according to Ned. “This is going to sound strange, but firefighters actually have dreams about saving the baby. Because that would be so fulfilling.”
Frank wanted people to know that even the big, tough firefighters can be sensitive. They try not to take the job home, but it happens. “Most times we take this personally, and it’s difficult. And when people sustain losses at fires, even now, I can feel something going through me. Some people don’t realize, we’re here to help. I think all the uniform forces, for the majority, we’re here to help. That’s what we do this for. That’s why I do this, anyway. I mean, I could have technically stopped working at 20 years, and I’m here 17 years longer because I still find it really worthwhile to help. I’m still here because I still have something to give to people. And most firefighters are like that.”