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Safety alert: Open houses can go bad

The annual open house is an excellent way to bond with your community, so long as catastrophe doesn't strike. Plan your event with safety at the forefront

With October just around the corner, fire departments across the country will be holding their Fire Prevention Week open house events in remembrance of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. While a lot of great education happens at these events, every once in a while something goes wrong. 

Fire extinguisher demonstrations are a staple at many of our open house events. While many homes have fire extinguishers and most businesses are required to have them, many residents admit that they do not know how to use them. 

Since fire grows so quickly, it is important that people are comfortable with how fire extinguishers operate. By teaching them the simple PASS method of operation (pull the pin, Aim the nozzle at the base of the flame, Squeeze the handles together and then Sweep from side to side at the base of the flames), followed by actual practice, we can help cement this knowledge in their minds.

The lessons from the video are many. In the first place, they use flammable liquids to soak the fuel. Flammable liquids can catch fire very quickly, and their fumes can light before the combustible fuels stacked up catch. 

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A flare can be used to light the fuel, and it can be taped to a broomstick handle to keep the firefighter well away from the fuel package. Once the fire does start, the firefighter in the video swipes his arms, throwing flames onto the audience. The backup plan for a fire out of control is to drop the ignition source.

Some fire departments like to show a little live fire action; this always draws a crowd. A live fire of any type must follow the requirements of NFPA 1403, with plenty of back up plans in case something goes wrong with the demonstration (as it easily can). 

In this video, we have some obviously inexperienced firefighters making entry into a structure that no one should enter. They enter anyway, and obviously sustain thermal insult, resulting in the only safety plan (a guy in blue jeans) being put into action. 

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The firefighters are pulled out, the audience is upset and the heat did its damage.

In this situation, the fire was too advanced to enter. If you feel strongly about a live fire, have the entry crew ready when the fire is lit. This has them ready when the fire starts to grow.

The demonstration would have been very effective if the nozzle had been opened upon entry, cooling the air and wetting the small structure much earlier.

Side-by-side room fires are quite popular today, and are very effective in showing your audience how quickly fires can grow, how effective fire sprinklers are, how combustible furnishings are, and a few other lessons as well. 

This fire demonstration went very well, until it came time for extinguishing the burn cell (room). The cell had Plexiglass on top so viewers could see the rollover and following flashover, but the melting Plexiglass dripped on the firefighters as they entered the burn cell. 

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There must be a safety officer, even on a controlled fire this small, to ensure that no one enters the burn cell.

In your open house events, demonstrations can make a strong impression on your audience when done correctly. Yet fires can go bad very quickly. Safety plans are a must; learn the lessons from the above videos to have a safe and effective educational open house in your community.

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