The number of fire-related deaths in Queens Community Board 12 fell from 14 in 1996 to six in 1997. This sharp drop in fire deaths shows that fire safety education programs are effective. Working with Borough President Claire Shulman, the Fire Department distributed more than 5,000 smoke detectors to needy and elderly residents in community boards with high fire fatality rates, including Board 12. Firefighters also increased safety education presentations, targeting especially young children and senior citizens, who are most at risk from fires.
The effort in Queens is part of an expanded fire safety program developed in response to a study by my Office that found that cities that spend the most on fire safety have the fewest deaths from fires. Unfortunately, we found that New York City was spending less per person than most other cities and had a higher death rate.
Mayor Giuliani responded before I even finished my report and immediately moved to expand the City’s fire safety effort. The Fire Department increased the number of firefighters working full-time on fire safety education and tripled the number of safety presentations.
The FDNY has taken other actions that have helped the City record only 32 fire deaths in the first three months of 1998, the lowest since the early 1960s. A 36 percent increase in the number of fire safety personnel, more outreach programs, more fire safety education in schools, and more fire safety messages in the media have helped bring New York’s rate below the rates of Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Newark, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.
You can help protect yourself and your family by observing the New York City Fire Department’s advice for improving fire safety in your home.
Start by installing smoke detectors, which double your chance of survival by providing early warning. The devices should be installed immediately outside sleeping areas and at the top of open stairways or the bottom of enclosed ones. Clean them periodically and test the batteries, which must be changed every year. If your landlord or building manager is responsible for maintaining your smoke detectors, make sure that testing, cleaning and battery replacement is on schedule.
Your kitchen is a high-danger zone. Turn off stove burners when you leave the room, and check the oven every 15 minutes when you are cooking. Never cook wearing loose or dangling sleeves which can ignite easily, a major cause of serious burns to seniors.
When you or visitors smoke, take care never to leave burning cigarettes, cigars or pipes unattended. Use large ashtrays placed on secure surfaces, and empty them into the toilet or a metal container. And never smoke in bed.
You should regularly inspect extension cords for fraying, exposed wires or loose plugs. The cords are not intended for use as permanent wiring, so unplug them when you don’t need them. If you must plug in two or three appliances, lamps or other electrical equipment, don’t use a simple extension cord. UL-approved units with built-in circuit breakers are safer.
In the bedroom, keep three essential items by your bedside: a telephone, a whistle and your eyeglasses. The whistle both signals where you are so you can be rescued and enables you to alert others in the household to a fire. While your first priority is always to leave the building and call the Fire Department from a safe location, you can phone for help if you are unable to escape.
Planned escape routes are critical. You should have both primary and back-up plans for each room. Check that any windows you will need are easy to open, not nailed or painted shut. Then practice your escape plan, although it may be simple, your reasoning and thought patterns may be affected during an emergency. Practicing the route helps develop your memory and instinct to follow the right route even if you are frightened or disoriented.
If you use a wheelchair or walker, check escape routes in advance to be sure you can get through doorways (and keep these aids near your bed as well). If not, map out accessible routes and discuss your plans with your family, friends, building manager and neighbors. Consider contacting your fire department to let them know if you have an impairment that might make it more difficult for you to escape.
The Fire Department’s education program is being targeted toward children and the elderly. You can invite firefighters to give fire safety presentations at your children’s school or to a community organization.
Fire deaths are often preventable, so the education campaign should continue to save lives. With these new fire safety education programs, New York can fight fire with knowledge.