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Column: Two minutes is all it takes in a house fire

We see reminders about fire safety so often that they can become like white noise. The reminders to change batteries in smoke detectors. Or to plan an evacuation route out of a home.

As a kid, fire drills in school were either a welcome break from class or an annoyance on a bitterly cold day. We get it, we all assumed. If there’s a fire, we head to the exits. How many kids really took those seriously?

But there’s a reason behind all the repetition and constant messaging. It’s a lesson that became all too apparent two weeks ago when five people died in a tragic house fire in Riverhead. Five additional residents in separate apartments of the multi-family residence were left with only the clothes on their backs.

A preliminary investigation by Suffolk County police ruled that the fire was non-criminal. As of Tuesday, no specific cause has been determined by the department’s arson squad, police said.

It’s hard to fully comprehend what the five family members living on the third floor of the century-old home were experiencing as the fire quickly spread. It wasn’t a case of an elderly person unable to quickly move. Three of the victims were men in their 20s. We may never know what transpired in those critical minutes as smoke surrounded the old building. We can only imagine the feeling of hopelessness they must have felt as seemingly every exit was cut off.

When my wife and I moved into our condominium, she recommended we get ladders that could be used as an escape from our third floor where the bedrooms are located. I remember joking at the time: Do we really need ladders?

We never did buy one. As I think about it now, it seems so painfully obvious. If a fire cut off the one route down the stairs, what’s Plan B? Rising smoke can quickly overwhelm anyone, as was likely the case in the Riverhead fire. In fact, smoke inhalation is the top cause of death in fires, according to multiple studies. Smoke inhalation cuts off the body’s oxygen and carbon monoxide in the smoke is often the driving factor, although other chemicals will add toxins depending on what is burning.

Residential fires often start from one of a few sources, with cooking as the leading cause, according to the National Fire Protection Association. From 2015-19, cooking caused 49% of reported home fires and 20% of reported home fire deaths. Holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and Christmas Eve were peak days for home cooking fires in 2019.

Heating was the second leading cause of home fires, followed by electrical, smoking and candles. 

It may seem obvious, but the most important tool in residential fire safety is smoke detectors. Smoke detectors should be located outside each sleeping area and in each bedroom and homeowners should routinely test the alarms. The NFPA recommends testing home smoke alarms at least monthly. Roughly three out of five fire deaths occur in a home where there are no working smoke detectors, according to the NFPA.

Research published by the NFPA last month that analyzed multiple-death fires in the U.S. in 2020 noted the effectiveness of sprinklers to save lives in multiple properties, including homes. The paper notes that civilian death rate in home fires is 81% lower in homes with fire sprinklers than in homes without them. Fires are confined to the room of origin 97% of the time when home sprinklers are present. Fire sprinklers and hardwired smoke alarms combined drop the home death rate by 90%, according to the NFPA.

Of course, a home sprinkler system won’t be practical for most people. But for those building a new home or remodeling, it could be a life-saving investment.

According to the American Red Cross, when a fire starts, you could have less than two minutes to get to safety. That’s why we hear those recommendations to go over a fire escape plan and to practice a two-minute drill. The Red Cross says everyone in a household should know two ways to escape from each room. And always remember to never go back inside a burning home, even for pets.

The Red Cross responds each year to more than 60,000 disasters, the vast majority of which are home fires, according to its website. To help reduce those incidents, the organization started the Home Fire Campaign in 2014, a national movement “to help keep families safe from home fire.” The campaign has led to the installation of more than 2.2 millions smoke alarms and made an estimated 956,000 homes safer.

There are many resources available online at websites like the Red Cross and NFPA to better prepare a home for fire safety. They are lessons we often easily dismiss as the threat of a fire seems like the farthest thing to worry about in our everyday lives. But we saw the painful reminder two weeks ago when tragedy struck.

We should all take the time to make sure we’re prepared. Two minutes goes by awfully fast.