Fire and smoke-related injuries on the rise this winterby Jennifer Wetzel | Dec. 30, 2016, 11:05 AM
VUMC urges caution with home-heating devices and provides tips on burn prevention
Over the last few weeks, Vanderbilt University Medical Center has seen multiple admissions and a few tragic deaths due to fire and smoke inhalation injuries.
Physicians and safety experts with the Vanderbilt Regional Burn Center and Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt say they treat more burn patients during cold-weather months, and the home is where these fires are most likely to occur.
“Home is the place where you feel safest but is also where you are most likely to die in a fire,” said Purnima Unni, MPH, Pediatric Trauma Injury Prevention Program manager at Children’s Hospital. “Eighty-seven percent of all fire-related deaths are due to home fires, which spread rapidly and can leave families with as little as two minutes to escape once an alarm sounds.”
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), leading causes of home fires include heating equipment such as space heaters, smoking materials and cooking mishaps.
Blair Summitt, M.D., Medical Director of the Vanderbilt Regional Burn Center, says these fires can cause severe and even fatal injuries to occupants, with alternative sources of heat often to blame for the most tragic injuries.
“While space heaters, fireplaces and wood-burning stoves can help people warm their homes during the colder months, it is critical that they be used properly,” Summitt said. “We often see more patients this time of year from preventable tragedies and encourage people to follow strict safety guidelines when heating their homes.”
Another cause of home fires this time of year is a dried-out Christmas tree. The longer a real Christmas tree is in a home, the more it dries out and becomes a significant fire hazard. Safety experts say that now is the time to remove and recycle trees.
Most fire deaths are not caused by burns, but by smoke inhalation. Smoke can disable so quickly that people are overcome and can’t make it to an otherwise accessible exit.
“Smoke inhalation and severe burns are usually unintentional, devastating and preventable,” said Cristina Estrada, M.D., Chief of Pediatric Emergency Medicine at Vanderbilt. “Preschool-age children can begin to learn what to do in case of a fire, and school-age children should know and review escape plans. It is everyone’s job to keep our children safe. We have already experienced deaths and injuries from residential fires this month and want to remind our community that it’s never too late to make your home and family safe.”
The following are some areas of particular concern for potential home fires:
- Lighted tobacco products – almost always cigarettes – are the leading cause of fatal fires in the home, causing 700 to 900 deaths each year. They are the leading cause of fire deaths in any location. Typically, abandoned or carelessly discarded smoking materials ignite trash, bedding or upholstered furniture. Most fatal smoking-related fires start in the living room or family room, rather than the bedroom.
- Cooking – cooking fires happen because people walk away from the stove. They get distracted by children, pets or visitors, sometimes forgetting they left food cooking. There is no safe period of time to leave cooking unattended.
- Heating equipment: Two out of three heating-related fires can be traced to improperly used space heaters – a category that includes fireplaces, chimneys fixed and portable space heaters and wood stoves. Space heaters (excluding fireplaces and chimney) most often cause fires when something combustible is left too close.
- Candles – the popularity of candles has led to growing concerns about fire hazards associated with candle use.
- Christmas trees – although Christmas tree fires are uncommon, when they do occur, the NFPA reports they are often serious. Christmas trees are highly flammable and should be recycled soon after the holiday.
Safe Kids Worldwide recommends the following tips:
- Working smoke alarms reduce the chances of dying in a fire by nearly 50 percent. For the best protection, install smoke alarms on every level of your home and in every sleeping area.
- Teach kids never to play with matches and lighters. Make a habit of placing these items up and away from young children.
- Create and practice a home fire escape plan with two ways out of every room in case of a fire. Get a stopwatch and time how fast your family can escape. It’s a learning experience for the entire family and can even be fun for children.
- Children should know how to respond to the sound of a smoke alarm. Teach them to get low and get out when they hear it. A child who is coached properly ahead of time will have a better chance to be safe.
- Use common sense in the kitchen. Limit distractions when cooking and don’t leave a hot oven or stovetop unattended.
- Blow out candles before you leave the room or before you go to sleep.
Jennifer Wetzel, (615) 322-4747