Home fire safety guide

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Fire awareness is an essential component of remaining safe in your home. 

A fire can take hold in your home in roughly 3 minutes, leaving you not much time to escape before it’s engulfed in flames and smoke. Since there’s so little time to think or act in the moment, it’s vital to prepare yourself with home fire safety education before you ever have to face it in real life.

Home fire safety statistics

We hope that a house fire won’t ever happen to you, but it could. More than 17,000 residential fires are reported in Australia annually. Though the risk of a house fire depends on many factors, you can still learn a lot about the risks from general statistics. 

Most common house fire causes

Not surprisingly, if something can heat up, then it has the potential to start a fire. Cooking is the most common cause of house fires, but there are several other culprits. According to NSW Fire & Rescue there are five top fire causes:

  • Cooking
  • Heating
  • Electrical
  • Clothes dryers
  • Candles and cigarettes

Its important to have an evacuation plan, and know what you will grab and where you will go in the event your house or apartment has been ravaged by flames. Have a read of our bushfire safety plan, which is also relevant in the event of a house fire. 

Most common times for house fires

Home fires are more likely to occur during winter. The risk of house fires might heighten when people light more candles and use open fires or heaters. 

From day to day, fires seem to start when people are at home. Fire and Rescue NSW responds to 4500 residential fires yearly, half of which have started in the kitchen. These fires take hold and engulf a home when left unattended. 

House fire deaths and costs

In 1998, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) recorded the death of 70 people from house fire-related injuries. In comparison, from 2013-2014, the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC) recorded 98 fire-related deaths.

Unfortunately, there can be a steep financial cost of repairing your home following the events of a home fire. You could be paying for fire, water, soot, smoke, and structural damage, depending on the severity of the fire.

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Keep your home safe

Read more on keeping your home safe and free from residential fires at NSW Fire and Rescue.

How to prevent house fires

The best fire is one that doesn’t happen. Here are our top fire prevention tips:

  • Buy a fire extinguisher. Then, learn how to use your fire extinguisher.
  • Teach children the basics of fire safety, how to prevent fires, and the importance of having a safety plan in case something does happen.
  • Always keep matches, lighters, heaters, open flames, and other fire hazards out of the reach of children.
  • Keep flammable items away from anything hot. (e.g. fireplaces, heaters, and ovens). 
  • Only smoke outside.
  • Always stay in the kitchen while cooking in case something catches fire.
  • Remember to shut off your stove after cooking.
  • Extinguish controlled fires completely. This includes fires in fireplaces and fire pits.
  • Don’t start a fire outdoors if you live in a dry climate. If you do, make sure to spray down the surrounding area in case a spark lands outside of your fire pit.

Learn about electrical fires, common electrical hazards, and how to fix them.

Printable: home fire prevention checklist

Print out our room-by-room fire prevention checklist:

Fire Prevention Checklist

Helpful fire safety products

These fire safety products can help prevent fires from getting out of hand:

  • Fire extinguishers: Store a fire extinguisher in your kitchen and on each level of your home. Additionally, make sure you know how to use a fire extinguisher and what type to use, as the wrong one could make a fire worse. 
  • Fire blanket: Use a fire blanket to extinguish a small fire by smothering it before it has a chance to get any bigger.
  • Smoke alarms: Ensure smoke detectors or alarms are fitted to each room of your home. Smoke alarms are required by law in every home. Specialised smoke alarms can also be purchased for those who are deaf, hard of hearing, or those who have disabilities. 
  • Home fire sprinklers: once activated, automatic home fire sprinklers can significantly reduce flames and heat, often long before the fire department can get to your home. Search for companies near you that can install sprinkler systems in your home.
  • A fire escape ladder: if you live in an apartment complex or a building with more than one level, fire escape ladders can help you quickly and safely escape out a window.

Make a fire safety plan

Emergency escape plans save lives. Do you have one for your home? Knowing what to do in a fire can make getting out safe easier. 

First, start by drawing a map of your home including windows, doors, and hallways. Identify main emergency exits like the front and back door. Come up with a primary emergency escape route and then contingency routes to follow if one way is blocked. 

Remember, in an actual fire, flames, and smoke can make passageways impassable, so it’s important to think this through when planning an escape route. For instance, if you have upper-floor bedrooms, you can buy fire ladders that unravel to help people escape quickly.

Once your fire escape plan is ironed out, try a fire drill. Again, use different scenarios to achieve better preparedness. For starters, have everyone lie in their beds to simulate a night fire. Then, practice escaping from common areas like the kitchen and living room. 

Also, consider the fact that smoke can decrease visibility significantly. Try a fire drill in complete darkness or with everyone’s eyes closed. Practice counting doors and sensing your whereabouts by touch instead of sight. The more practice you have in more scenarios, the better prepared everyone will be in an actual emergency.

Printable resource: fire escape plan

Print out this form and use it as a guide when making your fire escape plan:

Fire Escape Plan PDF printout

Video: How to Make an Emergency Fire Escape Plan

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What to do during a house fire

Here are the most important things to do during a house fire:

  1. Stay calm
  2. Stay low
  3. Get others out if you can  
  4. Call 000

Remember, everything can be replaced except for your life. If you remember nothing else from this guide, remember the four steps above. The following tips delve a little deeper into what you should do if there is a fire in your home.

Stay calm and stay low

Above all, stay calm. We know it’s hard with the smoke, heat, and the smoke alarm blaring. Panicking can make you forget the steps you need to survive, though. 

If there’s already a lot of smoke, stay as low to the floor as possible. Heat rises, so staying low keeps you cooler and keeps you below the smoke so you can breathe easier. If you can’t get below the smoke, cover your mouth with clothing or a towel and crawl on your hands and knees to the nearest exit.

Why keeping low is important

In fires, smoke and heat are often more dangerous than flames. House fires can cause areas near the ground to reach 37°C and up to 315°C near eye level. 

If you catch fire, the stop, drop, and roll guidelines you learned in school still apply. Stop, drop to the ground, and roll around to smother the fire. Cool any burned skin by pouring water over it for three to five minutes.

Extinguish the fire if you can

If a fire starts in your home, call the fire department immediately while assessing if you can put the blaze out yourself. Go with your gut. If there’s too much smoke and a lot of heat, get yourself to safety. 

As long as professional help is on its way, though, you can attempt to use a fire extinguisher to put out small flames. This will prevent the fire from getting worse, if nothing else. 

Yell “fire!”

As soon as you realize there’s a fire, let everyone in the home know by yelling “fire” several times as loudly as you can.

Get out

The only non-replaceable items are people and pets. Resist the urge to grab your laptop or jewellery. Instead, attend to family members and pets first. Rank them in order of who needs the most help (e.g. a baby or disabled family member).

If there’s enough time, you can gather important documents like your driver’s license, birth certificate, marriage or divorce certificates, and photo albums. If there isn’t, forget about it. Preserving life is much more important than saving electronics or personal items.

Be careful about opening doors

Don’t walk into any room without touching the door handle first. If there is heat, it’s probably not safe to enter. Opening doors can also increase airflow and accelerate the rate the fire spreads. Close the doors behind you as you leave.

Once everyone in your family is out of your house, stay out. Don’t go back inside for anything—it’s too dangerous! The firefighters will be able to go back inside to save anything they can. That’s what they train for, and they have the gear to protect themselves. 

Also, remember to stay back. Explosions are uncommon but could cause you to become injured if you’re too close.

Always use stairs

Never take an elevator during a fire. You could become trapped or suffer a fall if the elevator fails or gives out. Always use the stairs or fire escape instead of an elevator.

What to do if you’re trapped

If you’re trapped in a room during a fire, take a deep breath and remember this:

  • Close the door and plug up any cracks or vents with a blanket, clothes, or a towel to keep the smoke out. Wet the cloth you use to plug cracks if you can.
  • Call 000 if you have a phone and tell authorities where you are in the building.
  • Yell for help if you don’t have a phone.
  • Hang a piece of clothing or cloth out the window or yell to alert emergency crews that you’re still in the building.

What to do after a house fire

Before you do anything else, get medical attention for you, your family, and your pets—even if you think everyone is okay. Simply inhaling smoke can endanger you and your furry companions. If you’re unsure if you need medical attention, consult with the first responders on the scene. 

After a house fire, it’s normal to feel a lot of emotions, from fear, to shock, to grief. We know how important it is to take time to process your situation. Visit your local GP, as they can put you in contact with a mental health professional or somebody equipped to provide you with appropriate counselling and support.

When you’re ready, there are a few things you should do after a house fire:

  1. Determine if it is safe to remain in your home. Ask the fire officer in charge if your home is safe for you to enter. Also, have the household gas, water, and electricity wiring inspected by a licensed tradesperson. The tradesperson will determine if they were disconnected, damaged or destroyed in the fire. Do not inspect the wiring yourself.
  2. Secure your home. Protect the site from any further weather damage, theft, or vandalism. Ensure outside doors are locked and secured.
  3. Contact your home or rental insurance company. The sooner the insurance company is contacted, the quicker the claim can be processed. Check if your insurance company may also cover emergency accommodation if your home is deemed unsafe to stay in following the fire. Additionally, you may be entitled to an advance on your eventual claim settlement. 
  4. Take inventory. Note everything that you lost for your insurance company. The inventory of damaged items can further speed up the claim when the loss assessor makes contact. 

Call your real estate agent or landlord to inform them of the fire.

Video: What to do after a house fire

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Fire safety FAQ

Most household fires fall into one of the following categories:

  • Class A: These fires are fuelled by solid combustibles like paper, wood, fabric, plastic, and rubber.
  • Class B: These fires are fuelled by flammable liquids such as petrol, paint, turpentine, lubricants and some cleaning products.
  • Class C: These fires are started or fuelled by flammable gases like hydrogen, butane, and methane.
  • Class D: These fires are started or fuelled by combustible metals, such as magnesium, aluminium, and potassium.
  • Electrical (sometimes called Class E): These fires are started or fuelled by equipment that requires electricity or circuitry to operate. Once the electrical item is removed, the fire changes class.
  • Class F: These fires are started or fuelled by cooking oils and fats.

Though there are six main types of fires, there are five main types of fire extinguishers. The fire risk at your home or business will determine which type (or types) you need, as well as the size and weight required to put out a fire.

In Australia, the types of fire extinguishers are water, foam, dry powder (of which there are two different subtypes - ABE and BE), carbon dioxide, and wet chemical. Of course, there are also fire blankets, which offer more limited extinguishing capabilities.

There is no single type of fire extinguisher that works on all types of fire, so you may need to have a couple on hand depending on which fires are more likely to occur.

Always have working smoke alarms in your home, and ensure you follow your state or territory's laws on placement and number of detectors.

Alina Bradford
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Alina Bradford

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