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Reducing the risks of fire
The Star,
Saturday December 11,


A fire can be terrifying, and it can strike anywhere at any time. The best protection from fire is in prevention. However this is not always possible, so knowing what to do is essential.  

Usually, the first indication of a fire is smoke, either detected by sight or smell. Many residential fires start in the kitchen, but the deadliest are the ones that start when nobody is around.  

The most common causes are carelessly discarded cigarettes, faulty wiring or electrical equipment, kerosene stove accidents and kids playing with matches or lighters. 

Staying close to the floor when evacuating is the safest option. Inset: The only people who should enter a burning building are firefighters.

There are measures you can take to reduce the risks of fire. Keep cooking areas clear of combustibles and wear short or tight-fitting sleeves when you cook. Keep the handles of your pots turned inward so they do not stick out over the stove. If grease catches fire in a pan, carefully slide a lid over the pan and smother the flames. Then turn off the burner. Do not douse with water. 

If you use halogen lights, make sure they are away from flammable drapes and low ceiling areas. Never leave them on when you leave your home or office. A powerful bulb can also burn lampshades – use energy-saving bulbs which don’t get hot. If an electrical appliance smokes or has an unusual smell, unplug it immediately and have it repaired. Replace frayed or cracked electrical cords and don't overload extension cords. 

A small fire can be put out by covering it with a blanket or thick curtain to deprive it of oxygen. A fire extinguisher is also useful, but ascertain its suitability. A water-based extinguisher (type A) must never be used on an electrical or oil fire (such as at the kitchen stove). The dry chemical or powder extinguisher (type ABC) is suitable for most fires, including liquids and gases. 

When using an extinguisher, pull the pin, aim nozzle at the heart of the fire, squeeze the trigger and sweep from side to side, keeping the canister upright. An extinguisher needs to be maintained, so check that the pressure gauge is always in the green zone. Once used, even for a second, extinguishers need to be recharged. In any case, service annually. 

The website of the University of Oklahoma (, the US, has valuable tips on fire safety. It advises to never fight a fire if: 1) It’s spreading beyond the spot where it started. 2) The fire may block your only escape route; 3) You don’t have adequate fire-fighting equipment.  

In any case, the smartest option often is to run to safety as soon as possible before the fire spreads.  

Having a plan 

It's crucial to have a definite evacuation plan. As soon as a fire is detected, you should know how to get out, even in total darkness. There must be at least two routes out of your home or building. 

Make sure that everyone understands the escape plan and can escape independently of each other. The family or occupants have to know that once they have gotten out as quickly as possible, they are never to go back in for whatever reason. If someone is missing, tell the fire-fighters. They are equipped to perform rescues safely. 

Choose a safe meeting place outside the house. Once outside, call the fire department immediately. The last one out of any room should close the door but not lock it. Locking the door hinders the fire department's search-and-rescue efforts. If you live in an apartment building, make sure that you're familiar with the building's evacuation plan. In case of a fire, use the staircase (preferably a smoke-free one) to go down. Never use the elevator. Staircases of buildings have doors that are fire-rated (hence the need to keep them shut), meaning they can hold off flames for a considerable period. 

The National Fire Protection Agency of US ( advises families to “practise the escape plan at least twice a year, making sure that everyone is involved – from kids to grandparents. Allow children to master fire escape planning and practice before holding a fire drill at night when they are sleeping.  

“The objective is to practise, not to frighten, so telling children there will be a drill before they go to bed can be as effective as a surprise drill. If children or others do not readily waken to the sound of the smoke alarm, make sure that someone is assigned to assist them in a fire drill and in the event of an emergency.” 

The USFA adds that children may become frightened and confused in a fire and hide rather than escape to safety - especially if they started the fire. “Children are often found hiding in closets or under beds where they feel safe. Therefore, it is crucial for your child's safety that you hold fire drills in the home at least twice a year to let them practise the right things to do in a fire emergency.” 

Practise fire drills with your children.

Several studies have concluded that when working smoke alarms are present, the chance of dying from fire is cut in half. Make sure everyone recognises the sound. Test it once a month, replace batteries annually and replace unit after 10 years. There should be one unit on each floor. Hardware stores sell them – it’s a small invesment that could save your life. As a volunteer firefighter told me, “I have four smoke alarms because I only have one mother.” 

If rooms are grilled, at least one window in each room must have a removable grill. These quick-release mechanisms won't compromise your security, but they will tremendously increase your chances of escaping a home fire.  

Other points to remember 

Keep all matches and lighters out of reach of children. The US Fire Administration states that clothing fires are a significant cause of fire injuries to children (and to adults).  

“They set their clothes on fire by getting too close to heat sources such as open fires or stoves, or when playing with matches or lighters. Here too, the best defence is a respect for fire and to know what to do if your clothes do catch fire,” says their website.  

“People can become victims of fire by falling asleep smoking, either in bed or in a favourite chair, especially after consuming alcohol or taking medication. Ashtrays emptied before smouldering materials are completely put out also start a number of fires in homes of smokers.” 

The fire administration strongly advises against leaving young children alone at home. “Even if they don't play with fire, unattended children can accidentally start a fire by attempting to cook something or by using an electrical appliance in the wrong way. All too often, tragic fires occur when young children are left unattended, for even short periods.” 

When you enter a cramped or restricted environment, like a nightclub, hotel, concert, event hall, etc, make sure you know the alternative exit. This exit is mandated by law, and must never be locked. Lodge a complaint against any outlet without a fire exit, a locked exit or a blocked exit to the fire department (number below) so they can send a fire inspector. Then call the department again to follow up. W 

The Fire & Rescue Department can be reached at and The Malaysian Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association at . For emergencies, call 994. 

Next week: Evacuating safely and the situation with high-rise buildings. 


Tips from The Malaysian Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association’s website ( 

  • Remove piles of newspapers or other flammable rubbish. Replace fuses of the wrong size. Be careful where you store flammable liquids (cleaning fluids, contact adhesives, etc) and aerosols. Even a pilot light can set vapours on fire. Dispose of outdated or empty cans properly.  
  • Keep a large pot lid next to your stove to smother a pan fire. Get a kitchen fire extinguisher and learn how to use it. Never leave cooking unattended. Keep cooking areas clear of combustibles. Enforce a “Kid-Free Zone” one meter around your kitchen stove. 
  • Install smoke alarm in the middle of a ceiling in every room. Otherwise, there should be at least one alarm outside the bedrooms, no closer than 2m from a fluorescent light. 
  • For apartments / condos: 

  • Never keep rubbish in the hallway. Make sure it’s stored properly and collected regularly.  
  • Don't put items in the trash chute that are may get stuck. Things caught in the chute can easily turn a fire in the basement into a fire on your floor. 
  • Make sure that your apartment door is tight-fitting and complies with the fire code. 
  • Inspect your exit stairwell doors. They must be self-closing, snap shut and can unlock from both sides. If they don't meet this standard, report to the fire department. Also, blocked exits, piled-up trash, missing exit lights and open fire doors are against the law.  

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