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Unattended cooking leads to unintended fires

Use data to focus your cooking safety messaging on the issues and areas that need it most


Unattended cooking fires have been one of the leading causes of residential fires for years.

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As we embark on Fire Prevention Week this October, there are several actions that we, as fire service professionals, should be focused on as we prepare to educate our local populations about fire and life safety. One such topic is the danger of unattended cooking.

For years, unattended cooking fires have been one of the leading causes of residential fires. These fires have caused countless deaths and injuries and destroyed billions of dollars’ worth of property. Additionally, according to the NFPA, unattended cooking fires peak around the holiday season, underscoring why Fire Prevention Week is the perfect time this year to double-down on our messaging.

One of the key messages to highlight is the simple reason why unattended cooking fires are so prevalent – distraction. There are a multitude of things that can distract us while cooking, whether it’s the kids in the next room, someone coming to the door, even a text message. Of course, there are other issues that can raise the danger levels, like cooking while intoxicated.

With all this in mind, let’s address some of the key topics to target when educating the public on the dangers of unattended cooking.

Back to basics

When talking about fire prevention, it is important to go back to the basics. First, any prevention program needs to include initiatives that require functioning smoke alarms to be present in all residential dwellings. While this may not be the first thought in preventing kitchen fires, and it won’t stop them, it does provide early notification for those people who were cooking and got distracted.

There are different avenues to ensure that smoke alarms are found in residential dwellings in your district, and all should be explored. If your department is able, provide smoke alarms to the residents who are in need of a functioning alarm. In some localities, there are grants or partnerships that can provide these at low cost, maybe even for free. Use public education campaigns via social media platforms, department websites and local media to spread the word about a smoke alarm program.

Additionally, whenever your personnel respond to an incident at a residence, no matter the type of call for service, have them check for smoke alarms and ensure they function. This may not be practical in all instances, but take every opportunity to ensure a working smoke alarm is present.

Use your data

If you are concerned about cooking fires in your area, check your data to determine whether there is an area of your response district where these fires have occurred more often than others. If there is, then focus education efforts and outreach on that area.

These education efforts can involve any variety of initiatives. For instance, if there is a community center, park or church in the area that has an abnormally high volume of cooking-related fires, then start fire education classes at these locations. Other efforts include canvasing neighborhoods to hand out educational flyers, talking with residents and asking to check smoke alarms, or even installing new ones in the homes in these identified hot spots.

Additionally, it may be beneficial to research your cooking fires to determine what exactly ignited. If the fires were predominantly started by hot oil that ignited, then reach out to your local health department to see if they have initiatives focused on encouraging healthy eating and cooking. This could help identify target audiences regarding cooking fires.

Connect on social media

Social media makes it easy for departments to present a full public education program to the public, including demonstration videos. It’s easy to use, and most departments have many personnel who are well versed in the various platforms.

The pandemic highlighted how fire departments could take advantage of virtual platforms to provide fire and life safety education to audiences. Our department, for example, used social media for a variety of fire and life education initiatives, such as this video on unattended cooking. Catchy videos can deliver messages that are easy to retain by a wide variety of audiences.

Comprehensive cooking safety education

No matter the area of focus or initiative being touted year over year, everyone in our communities must be educated on what to do in the event of a fire – our high-level, back-to-basics fire and life safety messaging. This includes having a fire escape plan, closing your doors before bed and, of course, all the cooking fire safety messages we’ve shared for years – guidance like putting a lid on a pot or pan to smother an unintended fire and not removing a burning pan of grease outside a structure for fear of causing fire spread.

Bottom line: Any effort to reduce fire, injury and death is valuable, and as Fire Prevention Week approaches, go forward and relay the message of fire safety as much as you possibly can to any audience that will listen.

Daniel Shoffner is the battalion chief of EMS and public information officer for the Burlington (North Carolina) Fire Department, and has 25 years of experience in the fire service. He is also a volunteer with the Mt. Hope Community Fire Department in Guilford County. Shoffner has served with the Kimesville Community Fire-Rescue Department in Guilford County, worked for Guilford County EMS and volunteered with Emerald Isle EMS in Carteret County. He holds a Ph.D. in public policy, with research focusing on fire apparatus staffing, plus a master’s degree in public administration concentrated in emergency management. Shoffner is an adjunct faculty member in the Fire Science and Emergency Management Program at Purdue University Global as well as the Fire Protection Technology and Emergency Medical Services departments with Guilford Technical Community College.