It’s hard to believe that September is half over, leaves are starting to turn colors, and that October just around the corner. October, of course, is Fire Prevention Month, so by starting this series of articles early, we’ll get a jump on the process of Fire Prevention Education. So far this year (1/1/2021 – 9/13/2021) Wisconsin has experienced 33 civilian fire related deaths compared to 52 total fire related deaths in all of 2020. These statistics are within two, either way, of what was reported at this time last year. It is our goal to see that number drop dramatically in the years to come.
The fire at Kerry Ingredients a few years ago made me think that we should take a look at fire behavior and getting out alive as a fire safety article in the paper. A potentially major disaster was averted because everything worked right, and the people involved knew what to do. Kerry is very proactive in providing annual fire safety training for all of their employees. Knowing something about fire safety, fire behavior and getting out of a burning structure in the event of a fire meant that there were no deaths, no significant injuries, and minimal damage in what could have been a serious incident.
You probably remember learning about the “fire triangle” in school. This is the three-sided diagram, which shows that fires require fuel, oxygen, and heat to be brought together in order to create a fire. Modern experts have added a fourth side to the model - the complex chain-reaction that takes place at the molecular level to keep a fire burning. The more accurate four-sided model of how a fireworks is known as the “fire tetrahedron.” With this information experts are better able to develop new ways to extinguish fires or describe how older extinguishing methods work when they understand exactly how fires burn.
Oxygen is in the air all around us. Almost any material can become a fuel: combustible gases, flammable liquids like gasoline, furniture, wood, clothing, and plastics, to name a few. Any kind of event that brings these materials in contact with heat may result in a fire. Carelessness, a natural event (lightning or spontaneous heating), or mechanical or electrical malfunction may provide the ignition source.
We extinguish fires by removing one of the four parts of the fire tetrahedron. Lowering the temperature, removing the fuel, cutting off the oxygen supply, or interrupting the chemical chain reaction are all effective ways of putting out a fire.
A significant danger in any fire is the lack of oxygen. Fire requires oxygen to burn just as we need it to live. Normal air contains 21 % oxygen. During a fire the oxygen level drops rapidly. When it drops below 17% people breathing the air will have difficulty thinking clearly and controlling their muscles. They may become irrational and uncoordinated which makes escape more difficult.
When the oxygen content of the air drops into the 10 - 6% range, breathing stops. Normally brain damage or brain death will occur within four to six minutes. Several poisonous gases may also be present in the smoke. Smoke and toxic fumes are the leading cause of fire death. When you are sleeping it is possible to inhale these gases and never wake up, or you may pass out as you try to stand and escape. Carbon monoxide is a part of all fire gases and prevents your blood from carrying needed oxygen to your brain. Hydrogen cyanide (the gas used in gas chambers) is produced when wool, silk, nylon, Styrofoam, and many other plastics burn. Hydrogen chloride (another byproduct of combustion) will irritate your eyes and throat and creates hydrochloric (muriatic) acid when it combines with the moisture in your lungs. Increased levels of carbon dioxide in the air cause you to breathe faster, increasing the rate at which your body is exposed to the other poisonous gases in smoke.
Heat generated by a fire may quickly exceed 1 000° F. Such intense heat will not only cause severe burns to exposed body parts but can lead to heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Heat at such high levels has been known to cause unconsciousness within minutes.
Smoke detectors and sprinkler systems can detect and/or control fires quickly and automatically. You need to make sure they are working properly and are adequately tested. And you must respond properly and quickly in a fire emergency.
If you are in a situation where fire is a distinct possibility – your smoke alarm is sounding, a fire alarm has been pulled, there is a heavy smell of smoke, etc. – remember to STAY LOW AND GO. If your smoke alarm sounds during the night, roll out of bed – DO NOT STAND UP – and crawl out of the house. This is one of the drills we use when teaching the school children about fire safety at the time Fire Prevention Week every year.
Smoke and toxic gases, which are found higher in the air in the room, may cause you to be overcome before you know what is happening. Get as low as you can, preferably on your hands and knees; make your way outdoors as fast as you can, and don’t return for any reason. When you do your EDITH (Exit Drills In The Home) drills with your family, make a game out of it by seeing if family members can find their way out while blindfolded – this will closely simulate the conditions in a real fire situation (minus the heat and smoke).
Be sure to test any doors before opening them – with the back of your hand feel the door low, in the middle, and as high as you can reach while staying close to the floor. If any part of the door feels hot, find another way out. If the door is cool (or slightly warm) open it slowly but be prepared to slam it shut again if you encounter heavier smoke or if a flash overtakes place.
If conditions are right the room on the other side of the door may have a smoldering state of fire in it. When this fire gets oxygen (from the door you just opened) it will begin to burn freely and very rapidly again, so you must be prepared to close the door quickly to cut off its oxygen supply. Then, of course, use your alternate exit to get out of that place.
Knowing what to do will keep you from becoming just another statistic.
The Sentinel & Rural News covers the news and events of Clark County and southern Taylor County, as well as regional news that affects those areas.