5 Important Measures to Minimize the Effects of House Fires

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Updated: 13 June 2023
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Insuranceopedia Staff
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Key Takeaways

  • A few simple measures can go a long way to preventing a tragedy.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, fires caused 12,775 injuries and 2,950 deaths in 2016. It was also responsible for over $7.9 billion in property damage.

Preventing a devastating fire is not always in your control, but there are some steps you can take to significantly reduce the risks. This requires multiple precautions, since no single solution will be very effective on its own.

We've compiled five key recommendations from experts on how to improve your home's safety, reduce fire risk, and save lives.

Understand the Risks

Fire can grow very quickly. It only takes 30 seconds for a small problem to turn into a blazing inferno. According to Ready.gov, smoke can also produce complete darkness and fire temperatures can reach up to 600F.

Burning is the obvious hazard when it comes to fires, but it's not the only one you have to worry about. Smoke and toxic gases caused by fires kill three times more often. Toxic gas released by a blaze can cause disorientation, which can prevent the victims from escaping the burning building in time, leading to smoke asphyxiation.

1. Escape Plans Save Lives

The number one way to survive a fire is to respond quickly. That makes preparation essential.

An NPFA survey found that most homeowners mistakenly believe they have more time than they do to escape a fire. And only one-third of homeowners create and practice a home escape plan. Because time is precious during a fire and every second counts, an escape plan can save your life.

The Red Cross offers home fire escape guides for single and multi-family homes, as well as high-rise apartment complexes. They also offer a printable worksheet to plan and practice your home fire drill. They recommend homeowners practice it at least twice a year with all household members. At least one drill should be performed in darkness.

Regular drills reveal obstacles that can slow your exit, such as stubborn screens, stuck windows, or locked security bars. They also establish a clear escape routine instead of leaving you to react in panic.

2. Install and Maintain Smoke Detectors

Despite countless campaigns underscoring the importance of smoke alarms, the NFPA's data reveals that three of every five home fire deaths occur in homes with no smoke alarms (38%) or non-functioning alarms (21%), usually caused by dead or missing batteries.

A smoke detector's purpose is to alert you to a fire so that you can respond quickly. Yet the NFPA's survey found that only 8% of people think they should immediately leave their home when they hear the alarm go off. That means that even when the smoke detector is functioning properly, fewer tan one in ten homeowners will use it properly.

Most homes do have smoke detectors, but many have too few of them, have them properly installed, or leave them neglected or disabled. Follow the NFPA guide for installation and maintenance, but if your smoke detectors are over ten years old, it’s time to replace them.

Types of Smoke Detectors

Ionization alarms are the most common in homes today, and they perform well in fast flame fires. One issue, however, is that they trip easily, so many people disable them after it sets off each time they burn supper.

Ionization alarms are also slower to activate in smoldering fires, and may not activate at all.

Photoelectric alarms, on the other hand, respond well to smoldering fires and smoke, the leading cause of death in house fires.

The NFPA, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), and the National Institute for Standards and Testing (NIST) all agree that homeowners should install both ionization and photoelectric smoke alarms. This recommendation, however, is not unanimous in fire prevention circles. The International Association of Firefighters (IAFF), for instance, recommends photoelectric only and some U.S. municipalities now endorse this position. They also caution against dual detectors that combine both technologies, since this increases the likelihood that the device will have technical problems.

3. Consider Installing an Indoor Sprinkler System

Smoke detectors alert you to the presence of a fire, but they do not extinguish a fire. While many people associate them with commercial buildings, homeowners should consider outfitting their homes with a sprinkler system. Home sprinkler systems reduce the fire death rate by 81%. They also restrict fires to the room they’re in 97 percent of the time, which significantly reduces the extent of the damage and property loss.

Cost of Installation

Installing a sprinkler system in a new home is affordable. A 2013 NFPA report estimates the average cost in the U.S. is just $1.35 per square foot. This is a worthwhile investment when you consider that new homes often burn more quickly and fail faster due to the lightweight materials they're built with. New homes tend to rely on more synthetics that emit toxic fumes, too.

The NFPA doesn't gather statistics for existing home installations. Prices for adding sprinklers to an already constructed home will depend on the extent of the work. Installation may involve cutting into walls or making changes to the plumbing system, which could escalate the costs. Most companies will offer free estimates, however, and if you're planning a remodel, you may want to include a sprinkler system in your budget (for related reading, see Home Renovations: When Do They Make a Difference for Your Insurance?).

Leaking and Accidental Activation

Some homeowners shy away from sprinkler systems because they believe they’ll leak or activate accidentally and douse their entire home with water.

Leaks are very rare, however, and sprinklers react to significant heat changes, not vapors or the smoke from cooking.

Sprinkler systems are also designed to only douse the area where fire is present. Activating the sprinkler in one room will not activate those throughout the entire house.

An activated sprinkler, moreover, will cause less water damage than a fire hose, which can expel ten times the water (see 5 Water Damage Home Insurance Scenarios to find out what kind of water damage is covered).

If you're still worried about the possibility of a sprinkler malfunction, you can look for an insurer that provides sprinkler damage insurance.

4. Eliminate Combustible Material

Removing combustible material from your home, yard, and connected structures can greatly reduce the extent to which a fire can spread.

Here are a few simple steps you can take:

  • Clean out the garage, closets, and storage room of unwanted items
  • Store fuel, firewood, and building materials away from the home
  • Clear leaves and branches from the roof and gutters
  • Trim trees to ensure they don't touch, reducing the likelihood of embers jumping between them
  • Reduce woody cover around your home by 40%
  • Make sure vegetation does not touch flammable structures

(For more advice, see How to Protect Your Home from Wildfires.)

5. Review Your Insurance Coverage

If a fire ever damages part or all of your home, the last thing you want is to find out that there are gaps in your home insurance coverage.

Many of us take a "fire it and forget it" attitude to our home insurance coverage. We buy it once, renew it each year, and assume that everything's fine. But that's rarely the case. A lot of small changes could leave you underinsured or mean that you might need to purchase a rider for your policy or separate, specialized coverage.

Thankfully, this can easily be avoided by reviewing your coverage annually, right before it's time to renew. Review the amount of insurance you have compared to the value of your home and possessions. And pay special attention to the exclusions listed on your policy (learn about Insurance Policy Exclusions that Might Catch You Off-Guard).

If you plan on taking additional steps to secure your home from fire, consult your insurance agent to find out whether this makes you eligible for any insurance discounts or other perks.

And take the time to create a home inventory. If your house catches fire, this will speed up the claims process and make it far easier (for advice on creating one, see Your Complete Guide to Home Inventories).

Plan for the Worst

Facing a house fire when being unprepared puts your home, your possessions, and your family at great risk.

Plan for the worst and be ready in case a fire ever breaks out. It could prevent a tragedy.

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