In my opinion the most significant single fire hazard issue in the United States is that people don't fundamentally understand the importance of smoke detectors. Lots of people have said something along the lines of "If there is a fire, I'll just get out of the house. I'll smell the smoke, I won't need to depend on the smoke detector!"
That may actually be true if a fire breaks out during the day. The purpose of smoke detectors is to WAKE YOU UP if a fire breaks out at NIGHT.
A solid majority of people who perish in residential fires are believed to have been asleep when the fire starts. What happens is, the victim breathes in smoke while asleep and is rendered unconscious, or perhaps I should say, they are already unconscious and the smoke inhalation removes their ability to wake up. They never even know that there was a fire.
Smoke detectors are SO critical. They are cheap and easy to install. You can install battery operated smoke detectors just fine even if your home improvement skills are not very advanced. You don't even need a real ladder, a step stool that enables you to reach the ceiling will do! And of course, you always have the option of hiring a professional electrician to install them. They can also install a hard-wired system so that an alarm at any one smoke detector will sound throughout the home - and you don't have the periodic hassle of going around and replacing batteries.
So, the number one fire safety recommendation, as far as I'm concerned: MAKE SURE you have functioning smoke detectors on every floor of the house, and consider installing one in every bedroom as well. There is no safety hazard associated with having TOO MANY smoke detectors!
Here is an issue that has assumed greater importance in recent years. One of the most common causes of house fires is obstructed dryer vents. Over time, the dryer vent clogs up with accumulations of lint. Even if you have a good lint filter and are very careful to clean it between every load, some lint particles make it past the filter and accumulate in the dryer vent. This obstruction leads to a deadly combination: Highly flammable lint combined with elevated temperatures caused by restricted dryer exhaust air flow. This is one of the leading causes of residential fires, and unlike most fire hazards, it has actually been getting worse in recent years. In 2010, the NFPA reports that about 16,800 fires were caused by dryers in the United States, and by far the leading cause of those were clogged vents. These fires resulted in 51 deaths, 380 injuries, and $236 million in property damage. There is no difference in the risk between gas and electric dryers.
What is going on? Well, a prominent feature of modern house construction has been the trend of moving laundry rooms to a central location in the house, often upstairs in the middle of the bedroom area. This is a great improvement in convenience compared to the basement laundry rooms common in older houses. However, this trend has also resulted in a dramatic increase in the average length of dryer vent duct work. In the old days, when the average dryer vent was only six feet long or so, you could usually get away with neglecting maintenance of the dryer vent to some degree. Now, with many installations of forty- or even sixty- foot long dryer vents, the hazard has been greatly increased.
The solution? The most important solution is to have the dryer vent duct work professionally cleaned out at least once per year. Duct cleaning professionals know many tricks to cleaning effectively, and DIYers have little chance of matching their skills. If you are in an older house with a very short dryer exhaust, you may find it more cost effective to just replace all of the ductwork every so often, but if you have a longer run of dryer exhaust it really should be professionally cleaned.
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