How to prevent and deal with domestic fires

Accidental fire is probably the greatest single hazard facing any household. In all domestic fires-even the smallest-there is a real risk to life and almost certain damage to expensive fixtures and fittings. It is folly to wait fatalistically for a fire to occur hoping either that you can contain it or that damage will somehow be fairly limited. With a little foresight and planning you can prepare yourself for practically any outbreak-no matter how large or unexpected-and greatly reduce the risk to life and property.

How fires start

Your first step in fire prevention should be to learn all you can about fires themselves and how they start. Armed with this knowledge you can then attempt to avoid situations where the risk of accidental fire is particularly high.

Just under half of all domestic fires originate in the kitchen. Most are caused by pans, usually full of oil or fat which are left unattended on a cooker or stove. Many other fires are started by faulty electric fires and storage heaters.

In living rooms open fires are most often the culprit. If the fire is overloaded a hot coal or piece of burning log can easily slip out on to the floor. Alternatively, a spark from the fire can set a sooty chimney alight. Even more serious is when someone stands too close to an open fire and a piece of their clothing catches alight suddenly.

Faulty wiring which is old or badly installed can be a cause of fire in almost any part of the home. Bad practices-such as overloading socket outlets, using the wrong fuses or running cable under carpets-are all equally dangerous. In the bedroom, badly maintained or faulty electric blankets are a common cause of fires and should be checked regularly.

But a large number of fires are simply due to carelessness, malicious damage or the misuse of certain materials. A surprisingly high proportion of accidents in this category are caused by children playing with matches and cigarette lighters or adults smoking in bed.

Another point of danger in any home is the large amount of combustible material used in the manufacture of some furnishings and fittings. While you may not be able to replace these straight away you can at least be aware of the dangers involved and take steps to move the furniture pieces away from any potential fire hazard if you can.

Most interior furnishings-such as rugs and carpets-are reasonably fire resistant. But many chairs and sofas should be treated with care, particularly if they are made from certain varieties of foam. Foam can ignite very quickly and as it burns it gives off toxic gases containing invisible but highly dangerous carbon monoxide. To avoid this hazard in the future you should always insist on buying foam furniture which has been made with fire retardant materials.

Expanded polystyrene tiles, used for lining walls and ceilings, can also be potentially dangerous. If you want to use them, ensure that when they are applied the adhesive is spread all over the base of each tile rather than in a few spots around the outside. This ensures that if the tiles do catch fire they will burn in position rather than rain’ down in burning droplets. As an added precaution the tiles should be coated with emulsion paint or-better still — with a reliable flame retardant paint.

Building and lining boards vary greatly in terms of fire resistance. Plasterboard is generally non-combustible and you can buy specially prepared boards containing glass fibre and ground vermiculite for added protection against fire. Other lining materials-including softwood, hard-board, fibre insulating board, chipboard and expanded polystyrene sheets-have a far lower fire resistance and if you need to use them it would be best to treat the surface with a proprietary fire retardant paint.

Retarding fires

You may never be able to prevent each and every fire no matter how hard you try but you can at least retard its development and keep it to manageable proportions. To do this you should try to build in fire resistance to every part of your home whether you are building from new or just renovating part of it. A large number of specialized products are available to help you do this and you should select from these according to the layout of your home and the materials you intend to use. Cladding walls and ceilings: A number of manufacturers produce special fire-check boards designed to give good fire resistance when cladding walls and ceilings. These usually contain some fire resistant material-such as ground vermiculite, or calcium silicate-which can withstand high temperatures yet is light and easy to handle. Just like plasterboard the boards can be cut with normal woodworking tools and can be nailed into a stud framework without having the unnecessary inconvenience of predrilling.

To slow down the spread of fire, make sure you incorporate a number of fire stops into the stud wall. Position one near the middle of the wall, one just above floor level and a third just below the level of the ceiling. This will prevent flames shooting up between the outer wall and the cladding once a fire starts.

Ceilings can also be covered with fire-check boards. Butt them closely together and then either nail or screw them directly to the ceiling joists. Treating floors: One of the greatest dangers if a fire starts on the floor below comes not from the spread of the flames themselves but from smoke seeping through the gaps between the floorboards. The smoke can quickly overcome and suffocate anyone in the room, particularly if they are asleep and are not alerted by the sound of burning timber.

Floorboards can easily be sealed by nailing sheets of hardboard over the top. Clear the whole room of furniture before you start and lift all floor coverings. When nailing down the hardboard try to butt each sheet hard against the next to ensure that no gaps are left through which smoke could escape. If you can, push the sheet under the skirting board around the edges of the room so that the room below is completely sealed off. Once the whole floor is covered you can re-lay the carpets and replace the furniture. Fire doors: Interior doors are normally made from hardboard or softwood and will do little to retard any fire once it catches hold, but you can easily instal special fire-check or fire resisting doors instead. These are usually described as providing either half an hour or one hour fire-check.

The doors come in standard sizes complete with special fire-check frames as well as intumescent strips to seal off gaps around the door. They are installed just like ordinary doors for inside the house and should be fitted with automatic door closers to ensure that they are never left open.

Some manufacturers supply specially treated fire resistant plywood which can

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