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Safe and Sound : Some Tips to Protect You and Your Home From Disaster


As 75 fifth-graders from George B. Miller Elementary School in La Palma sat in rapt attention, Maria Sabol showed how the tiny flame of a candle could ignite something as seemingly harmless as steel wool.

She also exhibited how quickly a stove-top grease fire could flame up, and how to extinguish it by smothering the flames with a pan lid. Then she showed how the vapors from an oily rag could be ignited suddenly by a spark.

Sabol's traveling "magic show" on fire safety is part of the Orange County Fire Department's junior firefighter program, which reaches 10,000 students and their families every year. The program includes a four-week study plan designed to teach home fire safety to children and to involve their parents and siblings.

"The majority of fires we respond to occur in the home, and we find that most fires can be prevented," said Sabol, a community education specialist with the Fire Department. She added that 80% of fire deaths occur in homes and that most fires happen between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

The Top 10 causes of home fires, according to the Fire Department, are cooking, appliances, incendiary (of suspicious origin, possibly arson), electrical, other equipment failure, heating, smoking, children playing with fire, open flames, and other heat sources.

The Miller students learned how to smother grease fires with baking soda. They made a kitchen "fire pail"--a coffee can filled with baking soda--which is better to have around the house than a box of baking soda, Sabol says, since the baking soda can clump up in a box, making it less effective in extinguishing a fire. With the baking soda in a coffee can, it's easier to reach in and break up any clumps before pouring it on a fire.

Sabol also says that people get confused and sometimes just remember that they're to use "something white" to smother a grease fire and throw flour on it instead of baking soda. Flour can cause a grease fire to explode.

A fire extinguisher should be tested before it is needed to make sure the person handling it knows how to use it. No one has time to stop and read instructions when a fire breaks out.

Sabol shows her junior firefighters the PASS method of using a fire extinguisher: P--pull the pin from the top of the extinguisher, A--aim toward the base of the fire, S--squeeze the handle, and S--sweep from side to side as you spray.

Some fire extinguishers work only on certain kinds of fires. The wrong kind of extinguisher won't help and can even make things worse. Recommended is one labeled "ABC," which is an all-purpose extinguisher.

Some simple yard and household implements can be used to fight home fires, according to the Orange County Chapter of the American Red Cross. Shovels can be used to throw dirt on small outdoor fires. Rakes can help move debris away from outdoor fires. Wet gunnysacks can help snuff a fire. A household broom might be used to beat out a small fire, and a ladder can be used to reach roofs and windows in two-story homes.

Good planning is an important part of surviving a home fire. Homework for the junior firefighter course includes drawing up and practicing a home safety plan. Students use a piece of graph paper to draw a scale model of the inside of their house, marking all doors and windows. They then rehearse how to remove screens from windows and how to feel a closed door for heat before opening it, and to crawl to avoid smoke inhalation.

According to the Orange County Red Cross, a fire escape rehearsal should start with family members in their bedrooms with the doors closed. After an alarm is sounded, family members test doors for heat and then take alternate exits that have been identified in the escape plan. The family is then to gather at a designated meeting place outdoors.

Companies that provide homeowners' insurance offer brochures on home safety to policy holders. Luis Sahagun, public affairs coordinator at the Southern California office of State Farm Insurance Cos. in Costa Mesa, says that the information in these brochures may appear self-evident but is often ignored.

Sahagun recalls an incident in which a house burned down because the homeowner used a flammable substance--either gasoline or turpentine--to clean soot from a chimney. Even though the man waited several days to build a fire, his house burned down when he lit a fire in the fireplace.

Fuses are often a hidden danger. A fuse blows because of a short circuit or an overload. Sometimes the problem is caused by too many appliances plugged into the same circuit or by a defect in one of the appliances. If fuses frequently blow out, Sahagun says, it's time to have the house rewired to avoid an electrical fire.

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