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A Guide to Fire Protection and Safety

for People


The Animals Who Own Us


Laura A. Hoffman, Assistant Fire Marshal,
Nashville Tennessee Fire Department


This guide is written by someone who has practiced home fire safety with priority on rescuing the dogs and cats first and foremost. (Okay, we have to save ourselves so we can save them!) Our family plan was put to the test on April 16th, 1998, when a tornado ripped through our neighborhood and heavily damaged our home.

So...here are some tips to protect you and those who love and depend on you from fire, tornado, and carbon monoxide:


Create an evacuation plan. Draw it. Practice it. Assume that a fire could start in or near any structure and at any place. Then decide how you will escape:   Dogs/cats in carriers or crates? Each family member responsible for an animal? The animals will be terrified, so all obedience may be forgotten. Decide in advance where you will go when you get to a safe place: garage, neighbor’s, fenced-in area. Meet there, and take a head count. Practice this!

Every level of your home should have at least one smoke detector. I recommend:

A smoke detection SYSTEM that transmits an alarm directly to the Fire Department via a central station. That way, you have both early warning and automatic notification of emergency personnel. If you have kennels, put a system in them also.

Consider a residential sprinkler system. In new construction, they are less expensive than carpet and they not only detect the fire and send an alarm, they also put it out.

Practice good fire prevention around your home and property:

Do not allow combustible materials to accumulate where they might accidentally be ignited by smoking material, an electrical spark, or a pilot light. In basement or garage, keep combustibles (e.g. recycling bin full of papers) at least 10 feet from a gas water heater or furnace.

Accumulations of combustible material outdoors are targets of arsonists, especially juvenile fire setters.

Do not use extension cords to create additional circuits, and never use them for purposes for which they are not rated (e.g. running a lightweight indoor cord outside). Do not allow them to run under carpets where people trample on them and break down their insulation.

My personal prejudice, based on years of experience as an investigator: Do not let draperies hang in front of or furniture be pushed up against outlets, especially if they have anything plugged into them. A poor plug connection can cause sparking, which, in turn, might ignite combustible furnishings.

Puppies and kittens and any electrical cords do not mix. Whatever it takes, separate them!

Space heaters and animals do not mix. Actually, space heaters and people don’t either. Nor do heat lamps and kennels. If, for any reason, you must use any of these devices, maintain at least 3 feet of clearance to combustibles.

If you have fuel-burning appliances (gas furnace or water heater, wood stove, kerosene heater), install a carbon monoxide detector in the area where the appliances are. More important, make sure these appliances have plenty of supply air. For permanently-installed appliances (furnace), the gas company and the contractor will have followed codes to make certain the appliance has enough supply air, but sometimes humans (never animals) defeat this arrangement by moving furniture in front of furnace/water heater closets. Heavily insulated homes (e.g. those newer ones that aren’t drafty) pose another problem here, because they aren’t airy enough.

In my years as a fire investigator, I have seen animals save their people by alerting them to danger. Sadly, I have seen their heroism and loyalty "rewarded" by people who were careless. A few more pointers from personal experience:

Never allow small children around ANYTHING they can start fires with. The obvious culprits (aside from the children) are matches and lighters, but I have also seen children make torches using rolled-up newspaper, then sticking it in a fire place or pilot light.

The horrible truth is that juvenile arson is a problem everywhere. Cruelty to animals goes with this crime. Never let your animals outdoors unless they are secure. If you are aware of any suspicious activity involving fires or cruelty to animals, call the police!

Accidental fires are often caused by things being left on or placed near a stove. Cats can turn on stoves that have the old push buttons on top. Many people inadvertently leave things like papers or grocery bags on their stove, and cabinets, pot holders, and decorations frequently overhang stoves. A stove accidentally left on will eventually ignite these.

Do not leave anything on that could cause a fire—small electrical appliances, lamps (especially halogen lamps).

A warning about scalding burns: Whatever safety precautions you would take for a toddler, take for your animal. They can pull or knock things off the stove or pull a hot potpourri pot onto the floor.

* * *

Tornado Safety

Okay, now that you have done all of the above and feel safe and secure in your fire safety, along comes a Tornado to test you. Here are some tornado survival tips based on intimate experience:

Usually, we have some warning that the weather is turning violent. We also now have the instant alert weather radios, and many local pager companies will sell you a pager and sign you up for weather warnings for a small monthly fee.

If you have a home with a basement, make a storm shelter in the northeast corner. Keep supplies of:


non-perishable food for people and animals

pet supplies: bowls and leashes

flashlights and batteries

cell phone: take it with you when you head to the shelter; if you do not have a cell phone, get one.

blankets to put over all of you to protect you from debris.

If you do not have a basement, create a command center in an interior part of the house with all of the same items.

There are prefabricated storm shelters available for installation in your yard. They are available through a link on the Tornado Project web site.

After the storm is over, keep your pets locked up in the safe area while you check the house and yard for hazards such as downed wires, broken fences, broken glass, etc.

I also recommend investing in a portable generator. In the event of a storm—tornado or ice—it will allow you to stay in your home, keep your essential appliances running and you and your animals much happier. [A note for those of us who are owned by heavy-coated dogs who demand air conditioning: Most portable generators will not run a central air conditioning unit, but they will run fans.]

A note about cats: Ours knew the tornado was coming hours before we did, and they were already under heavy furniture.

Don’t leave your animals alone if violent weather threatens. If this means rotating family vacation days, sneaking home early, taking a leave of absence or early retirement, do not leave them alone. If this sounds extreme and the animals have grown accustomed to a comfortable lifestyle—i.e. everybody has to go to work—then secure them in a safe area before you leave them on days severe weather is in the forecast (especially April, May, and November).


Post-traumatic stress syndrome:  If something terrible happens—even if you survive it—our pets are more traumatized than we are. If you have a fire, even a small one, get your animal to the vet for a checkup. Whether it’s a fire or a tornado, their stress level is high. Do not ignore them or their needs.

* * *

© 1998 Laura Hoffman
reproduced on this website with permission.


This article was written and copyrighted by Laura Hoffman. Reproduction for other than personal home use is prohibited. Contact us for reprint permission.

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