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Smoke alarms & fire extinguishers: the first line of defense

By Ricardo S. Campos | 502nd Civil Engineer Squadron Fire & Life Safety Educator | Jan. 11, 2019


Fire detection plays a vital role in providing fire safety in protecting people, property and contents, in plain contrast to 50 years ago when any sort of automatic fire detection was a rarity in any facility.

A series of fire incidents and the continuation of research has changed the attitude of the populace. With the number of lives lost, substantial damage to property and its contents the lack of early fire detection was much needed.

The National Fire Protection Association, or NFPA, publishes fire statistics each year and the leading types of fires, for injuries and deaths, are residential. However, residential fire deaths have fallen by more than 50 percent since the introduction of the residential smoke alarm.

Smoke alarms are a key part of a home fire escape plan. When there is a fire, smoke spreads fast. Working smoke alarms give you early warning so you can get outside quickly.

  • A closed door may slow the spread of smoke, heat and fire.
  • Install smoke alarms in every sleeping room and outside each separate sleeping area. Install alarms on every level of the home. Install alarms in the basement. Smoke alarms should be interconnected. When one sounds, they all sound.
  • Large homes may need extra smoke alarms.
  • Test all smoke alarms at least once a month. Press the test button to be sure the alarm is working.
  • There are two kinds of alarms. Ionization smoke alarms are quicker to warn about flaming fires. Photoelectric alarms are quicker to warn about smoldering fires. It is best to use of both types of alarms in the home.
  • A smoke alarm should be on the ceiling or high on a wall. Keep smoke alarms away from the kitchen to reduce false alarms. They should be at least 10 feet (3 meters) from the stove.
  • People who are hard-of-hearing or deaf can use special alarms. These alarms have strobe lights and bed shakers.
  • Replace all smoke alarms when they are 10 years old.

Your ability to get out of your house during a fire depends on advance warning from smoke alarms and advance planning.

  • Get everyone in your household together and make a home escape plan. Walk through your home and look for two ways out of every room.
  • Make sure escape routes are clear of debris and doors and windows open easily. Windows with security bars or grills should have an emergency release device.
  • Plan an outside meeting place where everyone will meet once they have escaped. A good meeting place is something permanent, like a tree, light pole, or mailbox that is a safe distance in front of the home.
  • If there are infants, older adults, family members with mobility limitations or children who do not wake to the sound of the smoke alarm, make sure that someone is assigned to assist them in the event of an emergency.
  • If the smoke alarm sounds, get outside and stay outside. Respond quickly – get up and go, remember to know two ways out of every room, get yourself outside quickly, and go to your outside meeting place with your family.
  • Learn more about home escape planning at http://www.nfpa.org/public-education/by-topic/safety-in-the home/escape-planning.

Here are some facts and figures about smoke alarms:

  • Of the home fires reported to U.S. fire departments, smoke alarms sounded in more than half (53 percent) of the home fires.
  • Three of every five home fire deaths resulted from fires in homes with no smoke alarms (38 percent) or no working smoke alarms (21 percent).
  • No smoke alarms were present in almost two out of every five (38 percent) home fire deaths.  
  • The death rate per 100 reported home fires was more than twice as high in homes that did not have any working smoke alarms compared to the rate in homes with working smoke alarms (1.18 deaths vs. 0.53 deaths per 100 fires).
  • In fires in which the smoke alarms were present but did not operate, almost half (46 percent) of the smoke alarms had missing or disconnected batteries. 
  • Dead batteries caused one quarter (24 percent) of the smoke alarm failures.

Do you have a fire extinguisher in your home? Many of us do, but few stop and think about the type, how and when a fire extinguisher should be used … and when it shouldn't.


Most household fire extinguishers should carry an ABC rating. An ABC rating is appropriate for common house-hold fires. Check the label on the fire extinguisher to see which rating it carries.


There are different types of fires:


·         Class A fires involve common combustibles such as wood, paper, cloth, rubber, trash and plastics.


·         Class B fires involve grease, solvents, oil, gasoline, paints and other oil-based products. Class B fires often spread rapidly.


·         Class C fires involve electrically energized fires such as wiring, controls, motors and machinery or appliance fires.


Install fire extinguishers on every level of the home to include the kitchen, basement and garage. Place the fire extinguisher by an exit so you can leave if the fire becomes too large for you to extinguish.


Do not keep the extinguisher near the stove. If a fire breaks out at the stove, you want to be able to grab the extinguisher from elsewhere. Make sure to tell all family members where the extinguishers are located.


Train all family members – including responsible children – when and how to use fire extinguishers. Use a fire extinguisher only if:


·         You know how to use a fire extinguisher.


·         The fire is small and you feel confident in fighting the fire.


·         The correct extinguisher is immediately at hand.


·         You have a clear exit path behind you. Never let the fire come between you and your way out.


·         If the fire is not quickly extinguished, get out of the home, closing the doors behind you and do not re-enter.


Remember the acronym, "P.A.S.S."
P...Pull the Pin at the top of the extinguisher.
A...Aim the extinguisher nozzle at the base of the flames.
S...Squeeze trigger while holding the extinguisher upright. If you release the handle, the discharge will stop.
S...Sweep the extinguisher from side to side, covering the area of the fire with the extinguishing agent.


After the fire appears to be out, watch it carefully since it may re-ignite. In addition, inspect your extinguisher each month. Make sure it's in the proper location and check the charge level.


The gauge, if provided, should be at 100 percent or “full.” If it is below those levels, have the extinguisher recharged by a professional. Replace your extinguisher if it cannot be recharged.


As always, the best defense against a fire is to be prepared. Take a moment to look at your fire extinguisher. Read the label. Get familiar with how to use it. The time to learn how to use a fire extinguisher is now, not during a fire.

For more information about smoke alarms or fire extinguishers visit the National Fire Prevention Association at http://www.nfpa.org/education or contact the JBSA Fire Prevention Offices. At JBSA-Fort Sam Houston, call 210-221-2727; at JBSA-Lackland, call 210-671-2921; and at JBSA-Randolph, call 210-652-6915.