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Deadly Residential Fires Prompt NFPA, Newtown Fire Marshal’s Warning



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The Newtown Fire Marshal’s Office is in full alignment with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) following horrific and deadly back-to-back residential fires in Philadelphia and New York in recent days.

On January 5, two sisters and several of their children were among the 12 people killed when a fire tore through a Philadelphia row home, fire officials said. Then, on January 9, 17 people, including eight children, were killed in a fire in a high-rise Bronx apartment building. Approximately 100 miles away from each other, the two fires and the tragic death tolls incurred place them both in the top 10 residential fires since 1980.

Eight children lost their lives in the Philadelphia blaze — the city’s deadliest single fire in more than a century. At least two people were hospitalized and some others managed to escape from the three-story brick duplex, which was public housing, officials said. Investigators are looking into whether a 5-year-old playing with a lighter set a Christmas tree on fire.

The fire department initially said none of the four smoke alarms in the building appeared to have been working. But the Associated Press reported housing authority officials said the following day that the building actually had 13 tamper-resistant, 10-year detectors, all of which were operational during the last inspection in May 2021.

Then, on January 9, a malfunctioning space heater sparked a fire that filled a high-rise Bronx apartment building with thick smoke killing 17 people including eight children in New York City’s deadliest blaze in decades. Some residents said they initially ignored wailing smoke alarms because false alarms were so common in the 120-unit building, built in the early 1970s as affordable housing.

Investigators said the fire, triggered by the electric heater, started in a duplex apartment on the second and third floors of the 19-story building. The flames didn’t spread far — only charring the one unit and an adjacent hallway. But the door to the apartment and a door to a stairwell had been left open, letting smoke quickly spread throughout the building.

Home Heating Concerns

While these high-profile incidents capture the public’s attention, similar situations are killing dozens of others in smaller, more localized residential fires in recent weeks prompting the NFPA to issue a series of advisories regarding smoke detectors and home heating equipment.

According to the national agency, heating equipment is the second-leading cause of US home fires and the third-leading cause of home fire deaths and injuries. Overall, US fire departments responded to an estimated average of 48,530 fires involving heating equipment per year in 2014-2018, accounting for 14% of all reported home fires and 19% of home fire deaths.

These fires resulted in an annual average of 500 civilian deaths, 1,350 civilian injuries, and $1.1 billion in direct property damage.

Space heaters are the type of heating equipment most often involved in home heating fires. Between 2014 and 2018, space heaters annually accounted for more than two out of five heating fires and the majority of heating fire deaths (81%) and injuries (80%). An NFPA home heating safety tips sheet available at nfpa.org offers guidelines for safely heating homes during the winter months.

Here are some highlights:

*Keep anything that can burn at least three feet away from heating equipment, such as the furnace, fireplace, wood stove, or portable space heater.

*Have a three-foot “kid-free zone” around open fires and space heaters.

*Never use your oven to heat your home.

*Have a qualified professional install stationary space heating equipment, water heaters, or central heating equipment according to the local codes and manufacturer’s instructions.

*Have heating equipment and chimneys cleaned and inspected every year by a qualified professional.

*Remember to turn portable heaters off when leaving the room or going to bed.

*Always use the right kind of fuel, specified by the manufacturer, for fuel-burning space heaters.

Smoke Detector Advisory

Regarding smoke detectors, the NFPA says almost three out of five home fire deaths were caused by fires in properties with no smoke alarms (41%) or smoke alarms that failed to operate (16%). When smoke alarms fail to operate, it is typically because of disconnected or non-working power sources, such as batteries being removed from alarms or batteries that are no longer working; dead batteries caused 25% of smoke alarm failures.

The NFPA Fire Safety in the US report that was released last year shows that the biggest single factor contributing to fire safety progress in recent decades has been the use of smoke alarms, as mandated by fire and building codes, as well as continued public education about their significance. That same report shows that the largest share of reported structure fires and most of the civilian fire deaths and injuries today consistently occur in homes, where people tend to feel safest.

Working smoke alarms, which reduce the risk of dying in a home fire by more than half (55%) are a key element of fire safety.

NFPA provides the following guidance on their safety tip sheet:

*Install smoke alarms in every bedroom. They should also be outside each sleeping area and on every level of the home. Install alarms in the basement.

*Large homes may need extra smoke alarms.

*It is best to use interconnected smoke alarms. When one smoke alarm sounds, they all sound.

*Test all smoke alarms at least once a month. Press the test button to be sure the alarm is working.

*Change the batteries when they begin to chirp, signaling that they are running low. If the alarm continues to chirp after the batteries are replaced, it likely means the alarm is no longer working properly and needs to be replaced with a new alarm.

*Current alarms on the market employ different types of technology, including multi-sensing, which may include smoke and carbon monoxide detection in one unit.

*Today’s smoke alarms are more technologically advanced to respond to a multitude of fire conditions and are better designed to avoid false alarms.

*A smoke alarm should be on the ceiling or high on a wall. Keep smoke alarms away from the kitchen to reduce false alarms. They should be at least 10 feet (3 meters) from the stove.

*People who are hard-of-hearing or deaf can use special alarms. These alarms have strobe lights and bed shakers.

*Replace all smoke alarms when they are 10 years old.

For more information or to view NFPA safety publications for free, visit nfpa.org. For resources or guidance locally, reach the Newtown Fire Marshal’s Office at 203-270-4370.

The look on these New York City firefighters’ faces in this photo hint at the devastation they witnessed at a January 9 apartment fire in the Bronx that killed 18 including eight children. This tragedy and a significant residential fire a few days earlier in Philadelphia — as well as dozens of smaller localized house fires — have prompted the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the Newtown Fire Marshal’s Office to remind residents about home heating and smoke detector safety. —AP/Lloyd Mitchell photo
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