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Children and Fire

Children and Fire

New parents and others who care for babies and small children need to pay special attention to fire safety. Children under age 5 are twice as likely to die in a fire than the rest of us. In fact, toddlers age 3 to 4 actually cause a large number of home fires by playing with lighters and matches. And when fire breaks out, babies and toddlers can't escape without your help. Help keep children in your care safe - please read and follow the safety tips contained in the factsheets on this page and in the publications listed in the left column.

The United States Fire Administration (USFA) encourages parents to teach children at an early age about the dangers of fireplay in an effort to prevent child injuries, fire deaths and firesetting behavior in the future. Below are some facts about children and fire safety. 

Curious Kids Set Fires

Children under five are curious about fire. Often what begins as a natural exploration of the unknown can lead to tragedy.

  • Children of all ages set over 35,000 fires annually. Approximately 8,000 of those fires are set in homes.
  • Children make up 15-20% of all fire deaths.
  • At home, children usually play with fire in bedrooms, in closets and under beds. These are "secret" places where there are a lot of things that catch fire easily.
  • Too often, child firesetters are not given proper guidance and supervision by parents and teachers. Consequently, they repeat their firesetting behavior.

Practice Fire Safety in Your Home

  • Supervise young children closely. Do not leave them alone even for short periods of time.
  • Keep matches and lighters in a secured drawer or cabinet.
  • Have your children tell you when they find matches and lighters.
  • Check under beds and in closets for burned matches, evidence your child may be playing with fire.
  • Develop a home fire escape plan, practice it with your children and designate a meeting place outside.
  • Take the mystery out of fire play by teaching children that fire is a tool, not a toy.
  • Teach children the nature of fire. It is FAST, HOT, DARK and DEADLY!
  • Teach children not to hide from firefighters, but to get out quickly and call for help from another location.
  • Show children how to crawl low on the floor, below the smoke, to get out of the house and stay out in the case of fire.
  • Demonstrate how to stop, drop to the ground and roll if their clothes catch fire.
  • Install smoke alarms on every level in your home.
  • Familiarize children with the sound of your smoke alarm.
  • Test the smoke alarm each month and replace the battery at least once a year.
  • Replace the smoke alarm every ten years, or as recommended by the manufacturer.

Finally, having a working smoke alarm dramatically increases your chances of surviving a fire. And remember to practice a home escape plan frequently with your family.

Children and Smoke Alarms (Detectors)

In comments made at the launching of the "Tribute to Heroes" fire safety campaign in April 2002, U.S. Fire Administrator R. David Paulison urged Americans to do three things: "install smoke alarms and make sure they are working. Plan an escape route. And do a home fire safety walkthrough."

In spite of recent news events about children sleeping through them, smoke alarms and home escape planning are still a vital part of survival from fire. Smoke alarms have been and still are the cornerstone of fire safety technology in the home.

Statistics point to a fifty percent reduction in fire fatalities since the introduction of smoke alarms into the home. Although 90% of all residences have smoke alarms today, no smoke alarms were present in 42% of residential structure fires where fatalities occurred. Smoke alarms were present in 58% of fatal residential structure fires, but only operational in 37% of those fatal fires. That means that most often where smoke alarms are present in a fatal fire, the smoke alarm is nonfunctional due to dead or missing batteries.

However, the recent news events remind us of the need to continue research in fire safety and seek to improve on successful technologies such as smoke alarms. The USFA has recognized the need for a vigorous and timely exchange of information between the nation's fire safety stakeholders. It is important that the USFA and its fellow fire safety related organizations share information in order to analyze and disseminate appropriate and accurate information to the public and fire safety education specialists throughout the United States.

USFA and its partners are currently reviewing existing literature and studies from both foreign and domestic sources. USFA is also looking to identify and support relevant testing groups on this issue. Partners, such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and Underwriters Laboratories, Inc. (UL), are currently reviewing criteria for establishing such testing.

What is imperative at the moment is for our citizens to understand the need not to rely solely on smoke alarms as the entire answer to escaping from fire. These recent news events serve to reinforce the need for home escape planning. Smoke alarms are a tool in the planning process. Parents need to clearly understand their supporting roles in the escape plan. After going over the plan with your family, you should conduct a walkthrough of the plan. When you feel comfortable with your plan, hold a fire drill at night (activate your alarm) while your children are sleeping so that you and they can determine the appropriate response to a smoke alarm.

Smoke alarms and automatic sprinklers do save lives but they are just tools in the home escape process. We will continue to conduct research and promote new fire safety technologies but families need to remember that while technology is an integral part of the process, the maintenance of that technology (e.g. regular testing, replacing batteries, etc.) and incorporating planning and participation in their use will be the key to saving lives.

Courtesy of U.S. Fire Administration

Safety at Home