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Survey says: Fire prevention message isn't working

Survey data shows that most people do not understand the threat of fire and harbor dangerous misconceptions

Editor's note: As we progress through Fire Prevention Week, it is important that we not simply go through the motions of open houses and school visits. Despite the wide-eyed nods from out community members, fire-prevention messages are difficult to hammer home, as this column shows us.

The fire safety messages keep coming, but surveys reveal that too many people are under a dangerous misconception. In a nationwide survey, 79 percent of Americans feel safer from fires at home than in a public building. An additional 9 percent feel equally safe in both locations. 

The truth is that home fires outnumber all other building fires by more than three to one. In addition, most fire deaths and injuries occur in the home. Public buildings are subject to tough fire-safety regulations and inspections, whereas most homes are not.

As public fire-safety educators, we know about these misconceptions, and we battle them daily. The following movie clip from the movie Backdraft shows why many may believe that smoke is not harmful.

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Two ways out
On average, someone in the United States dies in a home fire every 169 minutes. A full 66 percent of American claim they have a fire escape plan, but only 35 percent of those with a plan claim to have practiced it. 

As you know, making up a fire-escape plan during a home fire is far too late. The concentrations of dangerous gases will not allow them to think clearly. A plan must already be in place, and practice helps make the behaviors permanent.

One-third of American households surveyed believe they would have 10 minutes before a fire in their home would become life threatening. We know that this is far from the truth. 

Given the fuel loading in most homes, chock full of plastics and synthetics, a small fire will grow out of control in two minutes or less. That is illustrated beautifully in the following video:

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Practice often
We must encourage our residents to practice their fire escape plan during the daytime hours and again at night when they are normally sleeping to make sure that everyone knows exactly what to do when the smoke alarm sounds. 

Telling children there will be a fire drill before they go to bed can be as effective as a surprise drill. Some family members don't wake up to the sound of smoke alarms, and they are usually children who will need an adult assigned to assist them. 

Statistics back the need for nighttime practicing. More than half of all home fire deaths result from incidents reported between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. but only 20 percent of home fires occur between those hours. 

Although children five and under make up about 7 percent of the country's population, they account for 12 percent of the home fire deaths. This give them a risk almost twice that of an average person. 

Older adults are also at greater risk of dying in a home fire than the population at large. Adults 65 and older face a risk twice that of the average person, while people 85 and older have a risk that is more than four times that of the average person. 

It is important that your residents know to have plenty of smoke alarms — at least on every level in the home. They must be tested monthly and the batteries must be changed every year at a minimum.

Adults should practice crawling low with their children to stay under smoke and moving to the closest exit. The doors must be closed once the family is through them to limit the spread of fire. Once outside, they should meet at the family meeting place, and never re-enter the burning building. 

The lessons are important, and we must seek out ways to educate our residents — video clips, such as these, are a good starting point.

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