A Tale of Two Fires

A photo of the living room where the women attempted to put a fire out with a wet towel. (Photos by author.)
A photo of the living room where the women attempted to put a fire out with a wet towel. (Photos by author.)

By Robert J. Ross

e constantly come up with catchy slogans for fire prevention programs like “get out stay out,” but we are fooling ourselves if we think this is the answer to our fire education prayers. In fact, I would propose it is a bit of a failure on our part. Though each year many injuries occur to the public who are fighting fires with makeshift items like pots and pans and even, in some cases, garden hoses, we as the fire service fail to embrace the full range of educational programs that include the safe and effective use of portable fire extinguishers. It is vital that we accept that it is inherent in the human nature of some people to try to put out incipient and small fires prior to calling 911.

Two Examples

Let me give you two examples with remarkable outcomes. On March 19, 2015, my department responded to a call that began as a small incipient fire and ended up being a two alarm. A nine-year-old was watching TV when the plug behind the couch began sparking and the TV went off. He went to get his sister in the kitchen. With good intentions, his sister tried to extinguish the corner of the couch, which was now smoldering, with a wet dish towel. She did this for several minutes, but the fire grew in intensity to the point where she could no longer tolerate the heat, smoke, and flames that were filling the living room. At this point, she gave up trying and fled the house, calling 911 from a neighbor’s home.

The cause of the fire was determined to be an electrical failure in the plug behind the couch. The first floor of the house was a total gut because of heat and smoke damage, and the second floor was salvable but the occupants were displaced from the house for more than six months.

My years of experience tell me that if these occupants had a 2½-pound ABC extinguisher, this fire could have been quickly extinguished, leaving minimal damage to the home.

The second example is a fire that occurred in 2013 in the kitchen of my brother Mark’s home in Haddam, Connecticut, a small community 25 miles south of Hartford. Haddam has a well-qualified volunteer fire department, but Mark’s home is in a rural part of town, and time of day and response time can be a challenge. Mark’s twin teen daughters were the only ones home, and they were cooking popcorn in the microwave when the motor failed and caught on fire. The girls immediately left the house and went to the neighbors, as they had been instructed, and called 911. The neighbor went back to my brother’s house and grabbed a 10 ABC fire extinguisher Mark kept in his garage. The neighbor entered the house just as the resident state trooper arrived, and he followed carrying an extinguisher from his cruiser. The neighbor and the trooper quickly knocked down the fire, which had flames extending to the cabinet above.

The fire department arrived a short time later and removed the microwave and cabinets involved in the fire, using fewer than 10 gallons of water on the smoldering cabinets. Mark and his family were displaced for one week while the interior was cleaned and within several weeks the kitchen was replaced and life for them returned to normal. This is a success story for the use of a portable fire extinguisher.

Lack of Education

A federal survey conducted a few years back concluded that 93 percent of the homes surveyed had a working smoke alarm. That’s great and getting better all the time. What troubled me about that report was that it stated that only 44 percent, or less than half of the homes surveyed, had a working fire extinguisher and one third of the fire injuries reported occurred during fire extinguishment or control. I would propose these burn injuries are related to the use of makeshift items rather than portable fire extinguishers in the attempts to extinguish fires.

The portable fire extinguisher is the most underused public firefighting tool available because we as public fire educators and the fire service in general fail to realize the portable fire extinguisher’s value in extinguishing incipient stage fires. As a result, we fail to promote them in our cadre of fire prevention programs. And why should we when our own fire codes often do not require extinguishers in locations where they clearly have the potential to do good?

A myth about portables is that they require expensive training. As a first-aid appliance, the argument of training, which I think was well debunked by Jim Tidwell of Tidwell Code Consulting, should not be a reason for watering down or amending the code requirements. If you consider the history of portable extinguishers, there has been a great deal of research, testing, and engineering into the labeling and operating steps to meet the most very fundamental concept of their use. A person with no training or experience should be able to read the label, remove the extinguisher from its bracket, and extinguish an incipient stage fire.

I have heard countless arguments against portable extinguisher use throughout my 35 years in the first response services. One, that people will not know how to use them, is wrong. According to “Ordinary People and Effective Operation of Portable Fire Extinguishers,” a study conducted by Worcester Polytechnic Institute, “The data collected strongly suggests that the ordinary person can operate a fire extinguisher and use proper technique to effectively extinguish a fire. Overall, 98 percent of the 276 participants were able to discharge extinguishing agent onto a fire on their first trial; 100 percent of the participants were successful on their second trial with a minimal amount of training.”

This photo shows a garden hose the occupant was planning on using at a recent stove fire before calling 911. Thankfully, she abandoned that idea.

Community Preparation

As the fire service struggles with so many health and safety issues, the biggest being the exposure to the byproducts of today’s household contents and the related link to so many cancers, doesn’t make sense the that our priority in fighting a fire should be in preventing it? During my rookie year in Middletown (CT) in1982, the lesson of fire prevention being our first defense was engrained in me by Deputy Fire Marshal Paul Rasch. Rasch was so passionate about fire prevention that he often dragged the line members along with him for his school prevention programs. It was there, in the classroom, that I saw the value of teaching young children the dangers of fire, and my own passion for public fire education was born. I have fond memories of going out with Rasch to teach Stop, Drop, and Roll. Rasch even had a dollhouse he modified and could smoke up to show the importance of keeping your bedroom door closed and the need for fast-acting smoke alarms.

But back in those days, we did not have the high-tech products we have today. Recently, the Fire Equipment Manufacturers’ Association (affectionately known as the other FEMA) donated to the Connecticut Fire Marshals Association an electronic fire extinguisher training prop. This was a generous $10,000 gift to the association membership that it could use in training residents and businesses about fight or flight and, if they choose to fight, the proper use of portable fire extinguisher operations. I can only hope those charged with fire prevention efforts will fully grasp the potential of the device and put it to full use.

My current department’s annual fire prevention week open house had record attendance last year, with more than 2,000 residents participating. Our program includes a diverse offering of fire and safety educational opportunities that include residential sprinklers and portable fire extinguisher training. I ask my fellow fire service professionals, no matter what rank you hold within your department, isn’t it incumbent on all of us that we should teach those we strive to protect how to have the right equipment in place prior to an incipient stage fire and to properly extinguish a fire so that we can reduce the number of people injured?

Robert J. Ross is a 36-year veteran of the fire service and is chief of the South Fire District in Middletown (CT). He has served as Connecticut state fire marshal, executive division director at the former Department of Public Safety, state coordinator of the TOPOFF 3 exercise, and chief of the Middletown Fire Department. Ross was the 2015 recipient of the Fire Equipment Manufacturers’ Association Life Safety Advocate Award for his efforts in supporting fire prevention education and his advocacy for fire safety code development.

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