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Recent extreme cold temperatures have residents asking firefighters about the safety of alternative heating equipment, such as space heaters. As always, your local firefighters care about your safety and want to make sure that you and your family are safe from the devastating effects of fire. They recommend that alternative home heating equipment be used with caution to ensure your family remains safe.

During the cold winter months, many people enjoy warming their toes in front of a space heater after returning from shoveling or playing in the snow. When the temperature plummets, many people use space heaters as the secondary method of heating their homes. Local firefighters have battled several fires in the past few years caused by space heaters.

According to data from the United States Fire Administration, approximately 45,000 fires occur each year that are directly related to home heating systems. Fires caused by alternative home heating systems are the second-leading cause of residential fires. Generally, these types of fires occur most often in the early evening hours between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m.

The National Fire Protection Association reports that space heaters caused approximately 40 percent of all unconfined home heating fires and approximately 85 percent of all home heating fire deaths. The data also indicates that placing objects that can burn too close to heating equipment, or placing heating equipment too close to things that can burn, such as clothing, a mattress, or a blanket, was the leading factor contributing to ignition in fatal home heating fires. This also accounted for more than half of all deaths related to home heating fires. Not surprisingly, approximately half of all home heating fires occur in the coldest months of December, January and February.

The American Red Cross notes that roughly half of all families in the country use alternative heating sources, such as space heaters, to stay warm. They also note that more than two hundred people die each from carbon monoxide produced by fuel-burning appliances in the home. Red Cross surveys have found that approximately 80 percent of Americans do not realize that home fires are the single most common disaster across the nation.

Your local firefighters encourage you to take a few simple steps to reduce the chance of a fire.

For space heaters, maintain at least three feet of clear area around the heater and make sure the heater is placed on a flat surface. Only use space heaters that are designed to automatically shut off if knocked over. Be sure to use the right fuel that is specified by the manufacturer and be sure to turn portable heaters off when leaving the room or going to bed. For all heating equipment, have the systems cleaned and inspected each year by a qualified professional and ensure that all equipment is properly installed according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

In addition to smoke detectors, install and maintain carbon monoxide detectors to avoid the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning and have a fire extinguisher readily available and easily accessible. As always, your firefighters encourage you to test your smoke detectors monthly and to replace the batteries at least once a year. Remember, when the smoke detectors sound the alarm, leave the home immediately, and call 911 from outside the home using a cell phone or a neighbor’s phone.

Don't let those pipes freeze

On a special note, in light of recent frigid temperatures, firefighters have some suggestions to prevent pipes from freezing and some recommendations for safely thawing frozen pipes. To prevent pipes from freezing, keep the thermostat set to the same temperature , or slightly higher than usual, both during the day and at night. By temporarily suspending the use of lower nighttime temperatures, you may incur a higher heating bill, but you can prevent a much more costly repair job if pipes freeze and burst. You can also open the cabinet doors under the sink to allow warmer air to circulate around the pipes. If you leave the faucet dripping, the water does not have chance to freeze.

Firefighters recommend that you thaw your pipes by applying heat to the section of pipe using an electric hair dryer, a electric portable space heater, or by wrapping pipes with towels soaked in hot water. Remember to never use a blowtorch, a kerosene or propane heater, or other open flame device to try to thaw your pipes. You can always call a professional if you need help.

The writer is a fire safety specialist for the Rhode Island Southern Firefighters League and captain of the Watch Hill Fire Department. If you would like to see a question answered in this column, please e-mail her at askafirefighter@yahoo.com.

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