The New Rules for Fire Safety
House fires today burn faster and hotter, and are more deadly than ever. Here’s how to protect yourself and your family.
The number of house fires reported in the U.S. has dropped by half since 1980, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Credit the proliferation of smoke alarms, public education, and better building codes.
Yet look beyond that number and the full story isn’t as rosy: Fire deaths in this country have been rising since 2010, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, a division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“Clearly, we’re trending in the wrong direction,” says Steve Kerber, PhD, executive director of the Fire Safety Research Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on fire safety. Home “is where people should feel the safest,” he says, but “it’s getting less and less safe.”
One main reason: time. There’s not enough of it. In a house fire 40 years ago, occupants had 17 minutes to evacuate. Now it’s just 3 minutes.
Fire Safety Essentials
Your home should be equipped with smoke detectors and fire extinguishers—the critical tools of preparedness.
Get Smarter About Lithium-Ion Batteries
Increasingly, lithium-ion batteries in devices such as electric bikes, electric scooters, and hoverboards have become the ignition source of catastrophic fires. Firefighters in New York City last year responded to at least 75 such fires, which were responsible for 72 injuries and three deaths.
The fires start while charging: A defective lithium-ion battery can overheat, triggering a chemical reaction. And a battery in “thermal runaway” creates its own oxygen, so flames can’t be put out with water.
Some tips on preventing lithium-ion battery fires caused by e-bikes and other ion battery-operated devices:
• Buy an e-bike, an e-scooter, a hoverboard, or a similar conveyance that has been certified by UL Solutions, an independent testing organization.
• Use the charger that came with your device. A replacement that fits the plug but doesn’t match the charging speed or amperage risks an explosion or a fire.
• Try not to charge devices overnight. Do not leave batteries for tools perpetually charging in the garage or basement.
• Don’t charge electric cars with an extension cord or use a multiplug adapter. Rather, plug the charging cord that came with the car directly into a wall outlet. For a much faster charge, consider having a charging unit professionally installed.
Stand By Your Pan
Almost half of home fires are caused by cooking. “Walking away from that stove is still a prevalent cause,” says Bruce Bouch, a fire program specialist at the U.S. Fire Administration. Kitchen fires are especially common on holidays and late at night; alcohol is often involved.
A flaming pan may ignite a particleboard cabinet, causing a bigger blaze. Injuries can happen if you move a burning pan to the sink or throw water on it, which creates a steam explosion. Instead, cover it with a lid or baking sheet. For oven fires, keep the door closed, shut off the oven controls, and grab a fire extinguisher in case you need it.
Mind Your Aging House
If you own an older home, you might have an outlet or two that don’t “grip” the plug of, say, your vacuum. This can introduce the possibility of an arc fault, where an intermittent contact from that loose plug can cause heat or a spark, and, potentially, a fire.
Arc-fault circuit interrupter (AFCI) outlets are designed to prevent these faulty connections from creating fires. AFCI outlets are now required in most remodels and new construction, and differ from ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCI), which are designed to protect against electrical shock in places where moisture might be present. (You can buy outlets that combine both.) It’s wise to replace worn-out outlets with AFCI or combination units.
Even better, get an AFCI-GFCI circuit breaker, says David Shapiro, author of “Old Electrical Wiring” (McGraw Hill, 2010). If you’re looking to buy an old home, have a master electrician take a look. He says that when investors quickly buy and flip a house, electrical systems are often an afterthought.
Consider Sprinklers for a New Home
Having a home sprinkler system is like having an instant firefighter: In homes with sprinklers, deaths from fires are cut by almost 90 percent and injuries by nearly 30 percent, according to the NFPA. In Maryland, California, and Washington, D.C., sprinkler systems are mandated for all new one- and two-family homes. Why aren’t they required everywhere? One reason may be that home builders in many states have lobbied against them, according to a 2016 ProPublica investigation. The NFPA says 29 states have passed laws prohibiting sprinkler mandates in one- and two-family homes.
Assess Your Wildfire Risk
A recent report from the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit that studies climate-change risk, shows that more than 100,000 homes in California currently face a 1 percent or higher annual likelihood of being affected by wildfire; the report estimates that that figure will increase sixfold by 2052.
California is not alone. Hotter, drier weather caused by climate change in many parts of the country is making the risk of wildfires higher than ever, says Jeff Shapiro, a fire protection engineer based in Austin, Texas.
More homes are also at risk as home builders push from suburbia into the fringes, creating more wildland urban interfaces, or WUIs, in states such as California, Colorado, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Washington.
And fire isn’t just a concern for those with homes abutting wilderness, because flying embers can set fire to structures more than a mile away. Many homes lost to wildfire are lost to a firebrand—an ember physically touching the house, says Douglas Kent, author of “Firescaping” (Wilderness Press, 2019).
• Research your risk. Find maps at wildfirerisk.org and firewise.org. Some states, such as California, host their own websites.
• Check the fire rating of your roof. When reroofing, consider using a Class A material, the highest in fire resistance. (Most asphalt shingles are Class A.)
• Defend the “ignition” zone. If you’re in an area at risk, the 5 feet around your home should be free of mulch and other combustible materials.
• Remove debris. Firebrands tend to ignite dried debris on the roof; dead vegetation under decks can provide fuel for a fire. Clear these areas regularly.
• Have an evacuation plan. Practice leaving your neighborhood via at least two routes. Take a video with an inventory of your home to make insurance claims easier to process. Discuss how to handle pets. And create a go bag (see below).
Rehearse Your Escape Plan
Having an exit plan for when a fire occurs has been a part of safety planning for what seems like forever. You probably drew a map of your house, and its exits, in grade school. But some experts say that drawing up a plan isn’t as important as doing a dry run with your family or anyone else you live with.
“Having a map of what you’re going to do and where you’re going to go is not as important as simply practicing what you’re going to do,” says fire protection engineer Jeff Shapiro.
By running through your plan, you might find things you need to address, such as windows painted shut. And you’re trying to develop a muscle memory of “if there’s a fire, this is what I have to do,” Shapiro says.
• Develop plans A, B, and C. Walk through your rooms and identify all your possible exits. Plan A: You walk through the door as usual. Plan B: You’re blocked. Where’s a window, and does it open? Are you on the second floor? Ideally, have an escape ladder for every second-floor room. Plan C: This is for when you’re trapped. Close the door and call for help.
• Set a meeting place. Pick a safe spot nearby: a mailbox, tree, or neighbor’s porch.
• Talk about how you’d handle a pet. Who in your home would be in charge of grabbing Spot? And if a wildfire endangered your neighborhood while you were away, would there be a neighbor who could pick up your pet? Here’s how to make a disaster plan for your pets.
• Make sure kids know the plan. Check that the kids know to dial 9-1-1 in an emergency, and be sure they’ve memorized your address.
• Close before you doze. Keeping this catchphrase in mind, and shutting your bedroom doors at night, can give you valuable minutes to escape before heat and fumes enter.
Get Your Go Bag Ready
Wildfire can spread incredibly fast—up to almost 15 mph. So it’s essential to be ready to move quickly if your home is threatened. Put together a go bag—a duffel somewhere easily accessible, such as near your bed, with a few essentials, listed below. And make sure you have scanned copies of all important documents, including vaccination records, available in cloud storage.
• Battery- or crank-powered radio
• Flashlight or headlamp with batteries
• Energy bars
• Water bottle
• Phone charger
• N95 masks
• Prescription medications. Get more details about a medication go bag.
Upgrade Your Smoke Detectors
Of all the fire safety tips, “have working smoke detectors in your home” is the most classic piece of advice—and the most important one to heed. Almost 3 out of 5 home-fire-related deaths in the U.S. occur in houses without a working smoke detector.
Apart from simply not having them installed, a major reason a home doesn’t have a working detector is that it has been deactivated. Almost one-third of Americans said they have at least once disabled one of their detectors because of a problem they had with it, according to a nationally representative Consumer Reports survey of 2,335 U.S. adults conducted in March 2021 (PDF).
When faced with a chirping low-battery warning or annoyed by a false alarm from overcooking a pork chop, people often take a detector down and throw it in a drawer, or remove its batteries and never replace them.
This year, UL Standards & Engagement, a standards certifying organization, is changing its smoke alarm standards, with a number of the updates designed to make those nuisance alarms less common. “This is the most radical change since smoke alarms were invented,” says Steve Kerber at the Fire Safety Research Institute.
The new alarms will have finely tuned sensors that can detect both flaming and smoldering fires, and can help avoid nuisance alarms. They will give extra leeway if they detect smoke from a burger but are more sensitive to other fires—for example, if they detect that a synthetic couch is smoldering.
Manufacturers producing smoke alarms must build them to the “UL 217 8th Edition” standard by June 30, 2024, but the first of these detectors may be arriving in stores in coming months. (Look for “Helps reduce cooking nuisance alarms” on the label.)
If you don’t have time to wait for the new smoke detectors, consider buying one of CR’s picks for dual-sensor alarms, which excel at detecting both flaming and smoldering fires (check out the best smoke detectors, below).
• Where to put them: At least one on every level of your home, including the basement. Also put them in hallways, especially outside bedrooms, and in each sleeping area. Bedroom alarms are critical if people sleep with their doors closed—which is a good idea because that helps keep fires from spreading.
• When to change them: Every 10 years. (CR’s survey found that 53 percent of people could not recall when they had last changed their detector.)
• When to test them: Monthly.
Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the September 2022 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.