BU Today

Health & Wellness

Boston Fire’s Best Practices

Playing it safe, in the dorms and off campus

Boston Fire Commissioner Roderick J. Fraser, Jr., advises students which smoke alarms, space heaters, and grills they should use. Photo courtesy of the Boston Fire Department

In the wake of two deadly fires in off-campus apartments involving Boston University students, many students are checking their smoke alarms, reading the instructions on their fire extinguishers (for the first time), and wondering what they need to know to stay safe.

BU Today put five questions about fire safety to Boston Fire Commissioner Roderick J. Fraser, Jr.

BU Today: What are the most important things that students need to know about fire safety?
First, one of the most dangerous things you can do is to have any kind of open flame, especially a candle. In 2004 alone, more than 17,000 home structure fires were started by candles. So it’s not a good idea to rely on them in a power outage. You should have flashlights or some other battery-operated device instead.

What’s next on the list?

Students should realize that it’s actually against the law to have charcoal grills on any wooden deck or patio structure inside their home. The Boston Fire Department prohibits use of them in any structure. It’s more than the potential fire risk — charcoal grills put out a lot of carbon monoxide, which you don’t want in a closed area.

Are there other tools or devices that students should not use in apartments?
They shouldn’t use any fuel-burning devices inside. That includes space heaters and fuel-burning lighting, like propane lamps and camping equipment. Lots of kids use space heaters, and that can be very dangerous. If you use them at all, they should be Underwriters Laboratories–approved heaters, the kind that will turn off when they’re knocked over. And make sure to keep all flammables away from them, including clothing.

Is there any safe way for students to grill food?

We recommend gas grills — they go right off when you turn the knob, whereas charcoal embers stay lit for a long time. If you are using charcoal, make sure to douse the flames afterward.

Do you have any specific advice about smoke alarms?
There are two things to know about smoke alarms. One, we find that a lot of people disconnect their smoke alarms. Maybe they’re doing some cooking, they get a nuisance alarm, they take the battery out, and it never gets put back in. Never do that. Two, if you’re buying a smoke alarm, make sure it’s a photoelectric-type alarm rather than an ionization-type alarm. The ionization types are less efficient.

For more information about staying safe, Fraser points to several Web sites that offer many potentially life-saving tips. On Escape Planning of the Home Fire Prevention section of the Web site of the U.S. Fire Administration, for instance, students will find the following advice:

Practice escaping from every room in the home

Practice escape plans every month. The best plans have two ways to get out of each room. If the primary way is blocked by fire or smoke, you will need a second way out. A secondary route might be a window onto an adjacent roof or using an Underwriters Laboratories (UL) approved collapsible ladder for escape from upper story windows. Make sure that windows are not stuck, screens can be taken out quickly, and security bars can be properly opened. Also, practice feeling your way out of the house in the dark or with your eyes closed.

Immediately leave the home

When a fire occurs, do not waste any time saving property. Take the safest exit route, but if you must escape through smoke, remember to crawl low, under the smoke, and keep your mouth covered. The smoke contains toxic gases, which can disorient you or, at worst, overcome you.

Never open doors that are hot to the touch

When you come to a closed door, use the back of your hand to feel the top of the door, the doorknob, and the crack between the door and door frame to make sure that fire is not on the other side. If it feels hot, use your secondary escape route. Even if the door feels cool, open it carefully. Brace your shoulder against the door and open it slowly. If heat and smoke come in, slam the door and make sure it is securely closed, then use your alternate escape route.

Designate a meeting place outside and take attendance

Designate a meeting location away from the home, but not necessarily across the street. For example, meet under a specific tree or at the end of the driveway or front sidewalk to make sure everyone has gotten out safely and no one will be hurt looking for someone who is already safe. Designate one person to go to a neighbor’s home to phone the fire department.

Once out, stay out
Remember to escape first, then notify the fire department using the 911 system or proper local emergency number in your area. Never go back into a burning building for any reason. Teach children not to hide from firefighters. If someone is missing, tell the firefighters. They are equipped to perform rescues safely.

Other Fire Safety Links

Boston Fire Department’s Home Safety Checklist

National Fire Protection Association’s Web page about safety in the home

Fire safety topics from the U.S. Fire Administration

Fire safety tips from Firesafety.gov