Jane Perkins

Holiday safety is an issue that burns brightest from late November to mid-January when families gather, homes sparkle, and travel spikes. Distracted drivers, holiday decorations, candles, and cooking all contribute to an increased number of accidents and fires.  Your local firefighters urge you to take some basic precautions to ensure your family and friends remain safe and injury-free throughout this holiday season.

Thanksgiving is considered the most traveled weekend of the year, and the roadways remain busy through the entire holiday season. In 2017, motor vehicle accidents accounted for 386 deaths on Thanksgiving Day, 273 deaths on Christmas Day, and 355 deaths on New Year’s Day. The U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that 40 percent of traffic-related deaths during Christmas and New Year’s involve drunk drivers, 12 percent higher than the rest of December. Choosing a designated driver is a great way to celebrate with family and friends. Drivers are also advised to adhere to hands free cellphone laws that are aimed at limiting distractions. You can also keep your passengers safe by having them buckle up regardless of how long or short the road trip is.

While holiday decorating is all about adding fun, sparkle, and warmth to a  special season, it’s important to remember that many decorations carry the risk of fire and injury if not used carefully. Emergency rooms report thousands of injuries involving holiday decorating. Falls are the leading cause of holiday injuries, followed by cuts and lacerations. When hanging lights or reaching for the top of the tree, avoid standing on chairs and furniture.  Instead, use a stepladder and check the footing. While you have the ladder, move tree ornaments that are breakable or have metal hooks toward the top so you can keep  children and pets safe.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, thousands of holiday deaths are caused by fires, burns, and other fire-related injuries. NFPA also reports that 12 percent of home fires occur in December. This is due to an increased use of candles and fireplaces, combined with combustible seasonal decorations. Your local firefighters ask that you never leave burning candles unattended or sleep in a room with a lit candle. If you do use candles, be certain to keep them out of reach of children and use a stable surface that is distant from the tree, curtains, decorations, and other flammable items.  

The U.S. Fire Administration reports that December is the deadliest month for electrical fires. Before you string lights on the house or the tree, be sure to inspect the strands. Replace any broken lamps and throw away strands with frayed cords. You’ll want to buy cords that have been tested by an independent laboratory, like the Underwriters Laboratory. Also, be sure to turn any holiday lights off when you go out for the evening or when you go to bed. You may also choose to use an outdoor timer or smart outlet to switch lights on and off automatically.

When making your list for holiday must-haves, be sure to include some tools for prevention. In addition to smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, every  home should have at least two fire extinguishers. It is a good idea to review how to use a fire extinguisher, make sure yours is accessible and unexpired, and recognize that a fire extinguisher has limitations. It should only be used on a small fire. Since fires grow and spread rapidly, residents should immediately call 911, get everyone out of the home safely, and only fight the fire if it is small and contained with minimal smoke and heat. Remember, you are never obligated or required to use a fire extinguisher and fight a fire. If you have even the slightest doubt about your control of the situation or your ability to fight the fire safely, evacuate the area and call 911.

Although a delicious tradition, deep-frying a turkey for a holiday feast can be risky. NFPA reports that deep-fryer fires are responsible for several deaths and nearly 100 injuries each year. Knowing the potential dangers can make using this cooking technique a safe alternative. Always set the turkey fryers outdoors on a sturdy, level surface well away from things that can burn can easily. Fryers have a tendency to tip, spilling hot oil, so keep children and pets away from the fryer to prevent burn injuries. The pot, lid, and handles of a turkey fryer can get dangerously hot and cause burns, so use long cooking gloves to protect hands and arms when you handle these items. An overfilled cooking pot will cause oil to spill when the turkey is placed inside, so be sure to use the correct amount of oil. You also need to use a completely thawed turkey, because a partially frozen one will cause hot oil to splatter. To prevent overheating, monitor the oil temperature often with a cooking thermometer.

The holidays bring much joy to the hustle and bustle of our busy lives. Making responsible decisions when traveling and preparing for holiday festivities will increase your safety that your family and friends stay safe this season. For more information about holiday safety visit www.usfa.fema.gov.

This column was written by Jane Perkins, 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 email her at askafirefighter@yahoo.com.

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