Take Care This Heating Season
NFPA Journal®, November/December 2008
We are seeing once again how a troubled economy disturbs so many people’s lives in so many different ways. At NFPA, one of our concerns, as we enter the winter season, is that more people will put themselves and their families at risk as they try to stay warm with fewer dollars to pay for fuel.
Although we have seen a significant decline in the number of home fires related to heating equipment since 1980, heating is still a leading cause of home fires and home fire deaths. In fact, one in six home fires today is caused by heating equipment. NFPA’s report on home fires, released last year, reported that heating equipment caused more than 62,000 home fires, 670 deaths, and 1,550 injuries in 2005. These fires also caused more than $900 million in property damage.
Even before it was clear that our economy was about to take a serious dip, we were concerned about a possible spike in heating-related fires because of the tremendous increase in energy costs. At other times when fuel costs have risen, we have seen a corresponding increase in heating-related fires. Now, we fear that the combination of much higher energy costs and much higher unemployment will cause more people who are unable to pay for heating oil or utilities to use more dangerous ways of heating their homes.
We are concerned that an increased use of space heaters, especially by people unfamiliar with them, will result in more fires. Our research shows that, while space heaters account for about one-third of the home heating fires, they account for nearly three-fourths of home heating fire deaths. The leading factor in space heater fires is placing the heater too close to things that can burn. In one particularly tragic event in Boston last winter, two young children perished when a space heater left on at night too close to them ignited their bedding.
Another major concern is that people will rely more on fireplaces and woodstoves to provide heat without taking adequate steps to make sure they are using them safely. People who have not used their fireplaces in years may now decide to light a fire before having the chimney inspected and cleaned. According to our study, chimneys and chimney connectors accounted for the largest share of home heating fires and that failure to clean accounted for two-thirds of those fires.
Along with the risk of fire, we should also be concerned about the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning from devices that are not vented properly or have vents blocked by snow. Without proper, open vents, unsafe levels of this toxic gas can build up in homes.
Each year, NFPA introduces the public education kit for the fire service on heating, which provides departments across the country with tools to use in outreach efforts around heating safety. This year, we are working to get the heating safety message out even more aggressively.
A new heating public education kit for the fire service will be delivered shortly to every fire department in the United States. In addition to safety tips and other print materials, it will include new video public service announcements that warn about the dangers of heating. This information will also be available on our website, and we will send this life-saving information to media outlets. For more information on our campaign, visit www.nfpa.org/heating.
While we brace for the inevitable hardships that come with an economic downturn, it is important that we not forget that one of them is the increased risk of fire. That is why we will work hard this winter to spread the prevention message so that families will be aware of the risks as they decide how to keep themselves warm this winter.