Seasonal Safety Check-up

Seasonal Safety Check-up

End of Daylight Savings Time means replacing smoke detector batteries.

Sunday is the end of Daylight Savings Time, and local fire departments would like to remind residents to change the batteries in their smoke detectors when changing the clocks around their home.

With the weather getting colder, it’s also time to think fire safety and prevention in order to protect from accidents or unseen dangers that could turn a major investment into a pile of ashes.

Tracy Cobb, office manager for A Step In Time chimney sweeping services, said this is their busiest time of year.

“If chimneys are not cleaned or at least inspected once a year, buildup in the chimney could easily start a fire,” she said. “Creosote is a substance given off by wood in a fireplace, especially green or unseasoned wood. If you don’t clean your fireplace often, the creosote can glaze over and cause a chimney fire.”

Having a chimney inspected could detect cracks that would otherwise go unnoticed, which could also start a fire.

“If there’s a crack in a fire box [the sealed chamber a fire is contained in a non-brick fireplace], it most likely can be patched, but it might need to be replaced,” she said, which would prevent excess heat from igniting a fire within a wall.

The cracks could be caused by excess heat from a fire, or by an external cause like lightning.

A chimney inspection takes between 15 and 20 minutes, Cobb said, and can be done by a homeowner “if they know what to look for. We do recommend having a licensed specialist check out your fireplace and chimney every few years.”

Cleaning a chimney could also be done by a homeowner with the right equipment, she said.

“TO CLEAN the creosote out of a chimney, we’d go in and do a row cleaning, which means we’d send chains up into the chimney to scrape it all off,” she said. “Basic chimney brushes won’t take off creosote.”

Another reason to have a professional inspect and clean a chimney? “If there’s a house fire and the chimney was not recently inspected by a professional, the homeowner’s insurance may not cover the cost to replace the house,” she said.

Lt. Raul Castillo, public information office for the Fairfax County Fire Department, said candles should be used with extreme caution, especially in homes with children.

“Candles left unattended can sometimes be knocked over by a child or pet and a fire can start that way,” he said. “It’s best to burn candles in glass vases, kept out of contact with other flammable materials and away from children and pets.”

People should also be careful when removing ashes from fireplaces, he said.

“Sometimes ashes stay hot for up to three days and can ignite paper or cloth,” he said. “The ashes can appear to be cold, but they’re not. It’s best to dispose of ashes in a metal container and store them away from the house, and also to pour a little water on them to make sure they’re out,” he said.

“People sometimes wrap their ashes in paper or leave them in the garage, and a few hours later they’re calling us because their house is on fire,” Castillo said. “We see so many incidents that could have been prevented.”

ANOTHER DANGER is space heaters that use electricity or kerosene during power outages or to heat rooms, he said.

“Portable heaters need a three-foot clearance around them,” Castillo said. “If they get too hot or something comes in contact with the heating coil, that can start a fire. It’s also important to refill gas heaters outside the home,” he said.

“Do not mix kerosene with any other type of fuel,” he said, because the two gasses may burn differently, affecting not only the temperature of the heat produced but also the burn time.

A family should also have a carbon monoxide detector to work in conjunction with their smoke detector.

“Carbon monoxide can come from the use of gas generators that are used during a power outage, from the daily use of fireplace,” he said.

“When we don’t have appropriate routine maintenance of gas ovens or ranges, it tends to increase the buildup of carbon monoxide in the home,” he said, adding that routine maintenance can catch leaks in gas pipes or tubing before a problem can start.

“People who have carbon monoxide poisoning don’t feel it until sometimes it’s too late,” he said. “It mimics flu symptoms: fatigue, nausea, headaches, sometimes a person’s thinking can be confused because there’s not enough oxygen getting to the brain, so people might not realize it’s an abundance of carbon monoxide and just think it’s the flu.”

“Carbon monoxide detectors are always good ideas if you have a fireplace,” said Paul Lynch, director of the residential inspection division for Fairfax County.

“They are not mandated or required by building codes, but they’re readily available. Some companies make dual smoke and carbon monoxide detectors,” he said.

Even gas fireplaces that use fake logs can leak gas. “Any time you have a yellow flame, you have carbon monoxide, so take caution,” he said.

NEW HOMES and apartment buildings being constructed have smoke detectors that are built into the electrical systems, Lynch said, and all interconnected throughout the building so that “if one goes off, they all go off.”

“Typically, we recommend that there is one smoke detector per floor, preferably near sleeping quarters,” he said. “Smoke detectors typically have a working life of 10 years, so people who have had a detector for a few years need to have them replaced.”

There is also a new mandate that all new buildings featuring a basement area that may become a finished, livable room must have an emergency escape and rescue opening, Lynch said.

“This mandate is expected to be controversial,” he said. “This is not required for basements that are used only for storage … Builders are not under legal obligation as of now to automatically put an escape route in all basements.”

There are 39 fire and rescue stations around Fairfax County, Castillo said. If more than one fire breaks out in a particular service region, an agreement exists in the fire department that the next closest service station will be deployed to the second fire.

“A 9-11 operator will patch an emergency call through to the closest station, whether it’s for a fire department, police, emergency services, whatever,” he said. “We all operate on the same channel so if there’s more than one incident going on, we all know about it.”

Castillo also encourages families to have at least two escape routes that are practiced once a month. “It’s good to practice the routes as a family, with the lights off and blindfolded because things are different when you can’t see,” he said.

For more information on fire safety, Fairfax County residents can call the public information and life safety department at 703-246-3961, or look on the county’s Web site,