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'Thrifty' homeowners may be playing with fire, officials warn

by Julia Dilday
Oct 09, 2008


If you do choose to use a space heater, Miranda and the Chicago Fire Department offer the following tips:

· Make sure your heater is in good working condition. All need frequent checkups and cleaning.

· Never use fuel burning appliances without proper vents to the outside. Burning fuel produces deadly fumes.

· Plug the space heater directly into a wall, not into an extension cord. Circuits may become overloaded and wires may become frayed. If you are concerned about your electrical system, have a licensed and bonded electrician visit your home.

· Keep space heater at least three feet away from paper, furniture, clothing and curtains. Keep young children away from the heater.

·Never buy a used space heater.

· Make sure the salesperson you’re buying from is knowledgeable about the product, and about city ordinances. Some communities ban the use of certain heaters. “If the person that’s selling you the product starts to read it, as well as you, it’s time to move on to somebody who does know about these products,” Miranda said.

· Use only safety listed equipment. If you use an oil or electric heater, look for the UL label. If you use a gas appliance, look for either the UL label, or the AGA label.

·Read the manufacturer’s instructions thoroughly before use. DO NOT overuse the heater. Turn off heaters when you go to sleep or leave the room.

If you have any additional questions about fire prevention and fire safety, contact the Chicago Fire Department Public Education Unit at  312-747-1699  .

Nearly half of Americans plan to use space heaters, stoves and other alternative heating methods in an effort to cut their energy bills this season, a new survey found, but they may do so at their own peril.

The Fire Prevention Week Survey, conducted by the American Red Cross and the National Fire Protection Association, estimated that 48 percent of American households will attempt to offset the high costs of heating by using portable space heaters, ovens, stoves and fireplaces to keep their homes warm during the fall and winter.

Fire authorities warned that although people think they are protecting themselves financially when using alternatives to central heating, it can be a risky practice.

“Education is paramount,” said Joseph Miranda, community service coordinator for the Chicago Fire Department. “So all we’re asking you is to infuse fire safety education into your everyday life.”

Fire Prevention Week, whose 2008 theme is “Prevent Home Fires,” commemorates the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Nearly a century and a half later, home fires are still a widespread problem in Chicago.

In 2007, more than 1,700 home fires occurred in Chicago, in addition to more than 14,000 home fires statewide in Illinois, according to Illinois fire officials.

Heating is a leading source of home fires across the nation, second only to cooking, according to the association.

In 2005, more than 60,000 home fires and 670 civilian fatalities in the U.S. were caused by heating equipment. These fires and fatalities peak during the winter months. And, according to John Hall, of the association’s Fire Analysis and Research Division, space heaters are often to blame.

“Space heaters have a much higher rate of fires and of related losses, including deaths, than any type of central heating,” he said. “They don’t have to have that. It’s just that they do get overtaxed if you try to stretch them too far.”

Home fires caused by space heaters (excluding fireplaces) are the deadliest, according to the association. In 2005, though space heaters were responsible for just one-third of home heating fires, they were involved in 73 percent of the deaths.

Miranda said many of these fires and deaths could be prevented by closely following safety guidelines.

 “You cannot have [a space heater] on 24/7,” Miranda said. “Impossible. The manufacturer’s booklet will tell you that as well.”

Judy Comoletti, spokeswoman for the National Fire Protection Association, said the placement of the heater is also of primary concern.

“The most important one is to make sure that people do keep them away, at least three feet away, from anything that can burn,” Comoletti said. “And that’s bedding; that’s papers; that’s people.”

Miranda said Chicagoans should not have to worry about inadequate heating, thanks the city’s heating ordinance, which requires that buildings be heated to 68-degrees Fahrenheit between 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 p.m. and to a minimum of 66-degrees Fahrenheit overnight.

“These are things the city emphatically goes after,” Miranda said. “Don’t take it on yourself to say, ‘Well I’m going to heat up with the stove or the oven.’ You’re putting yourself and your family in peril.”

There is some good news. “The long-term trends have been fairly favorable,” Hall said. “Some higher death rates coming down, property damage rates coming down.”

Miranda said fire deaths have decreased in Chicago as well, although a spokeswoman for the department said that specific numbers were not immediately available. He attributed this to the fire department’s quick response times, public education efforts, and the desire of the citizens to become more knowledgeable about fire safety.

Januari Smith, spokeswoman for the Illinois Fire Marshal, said, “The fire marshal is urging people to check their homes for fire hazards this week. If you find something, fix it right away. Don’t say, ‘I’ll do it tomorrow.’”