By David Wilhite
Fire Prevention Week is held each year to commemorate one of the worst fires in American history--the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. According to popular legend, at about 9 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 8, a cow in a barn behind Katherine O'Leary's cottage at 137 DeKoven St. kicked over a lantern, starting the blaze. Unusually brisk fall winds caused the fire to race out of control and, by 1:30 a.m., the entire downtown business district was in flames. By dawn, nearly 300 people were dead and more than 17,500 buildings had been destroyed.
In 1922, President Warren G. Harding established National Fire Prevention Week to honor the memories of the victims and drive home the importance of fire safety. It is important to remember that fire prevention should be practiced every day, not just one week each year. By following safety procedures and recognizing potential hazards, you and your employees can prevent fires at your facility and help save lives. The best way to survive a fire is through prevention. Become aware of any potential hazards that exist on your premises and take steps to correct them immediately.
Smoke detectors save lives. They are one of the most important safety devices available for protecting your premises against fire. Low in cost and easy to install, smoke detectors are unobtrusive and require little in the way of maintenance. Most important, they can provide the early warning you need to detect and contain a fire before it destroys your business.
When choosing a smoke detector, be sure it has an easily-accessible test button and a long-life battery backup. The alarm should be tested for proper operation once each month and a new battery should be installed at least once each year (or whenever the detector starts to "chirp"). Be sure the type of smoke detector you choose can be daisy-chained with all of the others on your premises so an alarm condition will trigger all of the alarms in the chain.
General Fire-Prevention Guidelines
- Conduct a general fire-hazard check when you secure your facility at the end of each business day.
- Periodically check all smoke detectors for correct operation and replace backup batteries.
- Lock all sprinkler-control valves in the wide-open position using sturdy locks and chains.
- Keep an adequate number of fire extinguishers on hand and recharge them regularly.
- Keep heating, air-conditioning and maintenance areas clean and free of any flammable materials.
- Use light bulbs that are the proper wattage for your lighting fixtures. A bulb of too high wattage or the wrong type may lead to overheating and cause a fire.
- Don't plug one extension cord into another.
- Keep fire exits and escape routes clear and well-marked.
- If possible, provide around-the-clock security patrols.
- Periodically inspect your premises for any new fire hazards.
What To Do in the Event of a Fire
Knowing what to do in the first few minutes when a fire breaks out is essential for minimizing property losses, preventing injuries and saving lives. In the event of a fire, call the fire department immediately, regardless of the size of the blaze (never assume someone else will call). Many businesses have been destroyed by small fires that got out of control in the time needed by the fire department to arrive.
You should also activate the nearest fire-alarm pull station if one is available on your premises. A special note for indoor-storage owners: If you or your employees have any doubt about the size of a fire or your ability to contain a blaze, you should evacuate the premises immediately and be sure to close all doors and any windows behind you. If you encounter smoke, take an alternate exit or crawl underneath it, staying low to the floor where the air is cleanest.
A note about fire extinguishers: In the event of a fire, fire extinguishers will almost certainly be your first line of defense. When choosing a fire extinguisher, you need to be aware there are four basic types suitable for different situations. Type I is rated for use on small paper or wood fires; Type II is rated for use on grease fires; Type III is rated for use on electrical fires and Type IV is rated for use on all of the above. Although a Type IV extinguisher costs a bit more than the others, it is preferred for the added protection it offers.
As a facility owner, you are responsible for preparing a fire-safety plan and training program; posting fire emergency-exit procedures for tenants; and conducting employee fire drills on a regular basis. As part of your operation's safety program, your employees should know their responsibilities in the event of a fire according to your fire-safety plan; the location of the two exits closest to their work area; the location of the nearest fire-alarm pull station (if available on your premises); and the phone number for the nearest fire department (calls dialed to 911 may be subject to unnecessary delays).
Reducing the Likelihood of Arson
Arson is one of the leading causes of commercial fires. In fact, fire-safety experts estimate that nearly one-quarter of all fires affecting businesses may be the work of arsonists, many of whom are vandals or burglars attempting to destroy any evidence of their break-in. Below are some commonsense guidelines you and your employees can follow to reduce the likelihood of arson at your facility:
- Watch out for strangers who appear to be loitering on or around your premises; notify the police in the event of any suspicious behavior.
- Be especially alert for any threats from, or unusual behavior by, disgruntled employees.
- Be sure all doors and windows are securely locked after working hours.
- Make sure outside doors, windows and alleyways around your premises are well-lit in the evening hours.
- Keep trees and bushes trimmed low near buildings so they can't be used as cover by an intruder or present a fire hazard.
- Keep all public areas in your facility clear of any flammable materials.
Fighting Small Fires
The very first thing you or any employee should do in the event of a fire is call the fire department (or dial 911) and ensure everyone has evacuated your premises. Once that has been done, you may attempt to control a small fire with a fire extinguisher properly rated for the type of fire you are fighting. The most important concern when a fire breaks out is the safety of people on the premises. Keep the following three points in mind:
- Never fight a fire if it is large or spreading.
- Never fight a fire if your escape route may be blocked by the spread of fire.
- Never fight a fire if you are unsure how to correctly use of the extinguisher or are unsure of the type of fire.
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