Thanksgiving weekend typically signifies the kick-off to the winter travel season. This year, however, is different. In today’s age of COVID, many Americans are opting to stay home. And, while that precaution eliminates certain risks, as first responders are only too aware, others can arise. Chief Maitland of the Chappaqua Fire Department reports, “People are home more, everything within those homes is experiencing more usage and we are preparing for more calls.” Local fire departments are always poised to respond to “doomsday scenarios,” but by following simple tips, a warm home can be maintained at a safe temperature.
Home for the Holidays
Year-round fire safety is high on the community’s priority list, but holidays bring seasonal risk factors. To ensure that family celebrations go off without a hitch, Armonk Fire Department’s Chief Goulet advises, “Some of the biggest sources of danger are the most preventable. For example,” he says, “Don’t burn your food, don’t deep fry a frozen turkey and if you choose to deep fry, don’t attempt it too close to your home.”
Chief Maitland cautions that “the safest candle is the one that’s not lit.” Candles should be positioned in areas that are not in reach of pets, children or flammable items. Similarly, holiday lights require careful inspection and proper installation. Fire departments urge checking that correct fuses are being used, turning fairy lights inside and outside the home off when sleeping, ensuring that bulbs can’t come into contact with flammable materials and using power strips with built-in circuit breakers.
In the case that burnt toast does trigger a fire alarm, Chief Maitland recommends using the event as a learning opportunity. “Kids are like sponges and pick up on fire preparedness,” he says, adding, “Families often unwittingly undo the lessons children learn at school fire drills when they ignore false alarms. Once your alarm goes off, we’re coming no matter what. Use it as an opportunity to have a fire drill at home. Otherwise,” he warns, “when an alarm goes off in earnest, families may be programmed to ignore it.”
As September demonstrated, storms can bring power lines down at any time of year, but winter is notorious for outages. Generators are prevalent in our communities, yet they come with their own hazards. Chief Maitland explains, “There’s a tremendous amount of human error when it comes to generators ranging from installation to improper usage.” During the past storm, Chief Goulet reports that his department responded to many carbon monoxide alarms stemming from generators and says, “Most were from actual carbon monoxide exposure. Just because a generator meets code doesn’t ensure it’s operating safely.”
Captain Santone, a 44-year veteran of the Millwood Fire Department, specifically points to portable generators, which typically come with short cords that position them less than three feet from homes. He says, “Generators really need to be far from homes, diverting exhaust fumes, which contain carbon monoxide, away from the structure. A long enough cord is essential.” Furthermore, generators that are too close to homes come with the added potential of spurring a fire in a home’s wood siding. On the topic, Chief Maitland recommends exceeding code guidelines, saying, “I would put them so far from the house that there’s no possibility of fumes entering.”
Carbon monoxide’s reputation as the silent killer is well-earned. “This is what keeps me up at night,” Chief Maitland says, “We get approximately 75-90 calls per year resulting from carbon monoxide alarms and at least 15-20 of those would lead to deaths if we didn’t show up. I can’t stress how important it is to have carbon monoxide detectors installed on every floor of a home and, ideally, in each bedroom. If your alarm goes off, exit immediately. In my dream world, when we show up, the entire family is waiting for us a safe distance from the property.”
The Best Offense is a Good Defense
Educating the public is a top goal for each local department. The more the community understands about fire safety, the less of a drain is placed on these all-volunteer departments’ resources. Chief Maitland says, “There’s an overwhelming amount of education that comes into owning a home. We are a community resource and will even come to your home and give recommendations to create a safe environment.”
Chief Goulet concurs and notes that the Armonk Fire Department creates and distributes flyers advocating safety tips. Currently, they are promoting the “Close Before You Doze” initiative. “Today’s furniture burns faster than materials used in the past. This gives people a smaller window of time to escape in the case of a fire emergency,” he explains, saying, “It’s enlightening to learn how smoke can be minimized and how many minutes can be gained by simply closing bedroom doors at night.”
Captain Santone advocates for an annual heating system check-up. “A well-maintained heating unit is a fireman’s friend. Heating systems including fireplaces and chimneys should be regularly serviced and checked,” he says, adding, “When it comes to fireplaces, never assume that ash from a conventional chimney is cool. Embers can live for days deep within ash. Always dispose of ash in a metal container nowhere near the home.”
Persistence in a Pandemic
Our area fire departments have continued to work tirelessly throughout the pandemic to provide First Responder fire, rescue and EMS services. To safely do so, they made slight modifications to their routines. Chief Goulet explains, “During the start of COVID, we limited the number of people in training sessions. Eating is no longer permitted in the firehouse and our members wear PPE on calls. To date, none of our members have contracted the virus, even through the local uptick, so it seems like what we are doing is working.” Similarly, the Millwood Fire Department is taking extra precautions, often conducting front porch interviews before entering a structure. Captain Santone reports that in the uncommon event the department has needed to enter a home with COVID exposure, “we ask everyone to exit the structure, which they should do regardless of COVID, and we enter with our air packs; the same PPE we would wear in the case of a fire.”
Each of the firehouses will soon launch their annual year-end fundraisers. Donations are important, but these all-volunteer organizations rely mostly on participation.