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
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
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.
* * *
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
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
* * *
© 1998 Laura Hoffman
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