Fire Safety for Preschoolers
Did you know that a small grease fire in your kitchen can turn into a raging inferno within seconds?
Fires kill more Americans every year than floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes combined, according to the National Fire Incident Reporting System. Would you know what to do if a kitchen fire got out of control or if your smoke detector sounded in the middle of the night? Would your preschooler? When should parents start teaching their youngsters what to do if a fire breaks out in the house?
"There have been a lot of studies done on teaching fire safety to young children, and basically we found that children below the age of 3 have difficulty understanding abstract concepts like fire prevention or 'what if' scenarios," says William Wiseman, a New York State Fire Investigator. "Although they might not understand or be able to digest all that you tell them, things like the importance of the smoke detector's alarm can still be taught to them."
Wiseman says it is also important to let young children know that fire is dangerous. "Children are taught about not touching the oven or stove as soon as they are able to walk. They learn that hot things can and do hurt."
Still, Wiseman says that more detailed fire safety lessons aren't really recommended until the child is at least 4 to 5 years old.
Where to Begin
Wiseman suggests that fire safety, like almost any other important safety lesson, begin in the home.
"Start by familiarizing young children with the sound of the smoke detector and instructing them on what to do if it goes off," he says. "You should also teach them what to do if they start a fire accidentally and show them how to stop, drop and roll if their clothes catch fire."
Most importantly, Wiseman says you should teach them never to play with matches, lighters or any flame-producing equipment. It might also be helpful to not use any such products in your preschooler's presence.
"Kids are naturally curious at that age and they like to mimic what they see adults do. They are highly imitative," he says. So, if you must light the grill or strike a match to your oven's pilot light, either wait to your preschooler leaves the area or send him or her to do something else.
"I used to make a game out of it," says Betty Arrenson, a kindergarten teacher and mother of two. "Before they started school and I needed to light the stove, I'd challenge my children to a treasure hunt and send them looking in another room for a pink object or something shaped like a square. It worked like a charm."
Wiseman adds that because young children are so imitative, it is important for parents to do the right thing when it comes to fire safety as well. For lots of parents, though, the concept of getting out of the house each time the detector goes off is a difficult one to follow through on, especially if it sounds whenever someone puts bread in the toaster.
"All too often, we get jaded because every time [someone] cooks, the smoke detector goes off," Wiseman says. "You don't want your children to be awakened in the middle of the night and think 'It's just Mom cooking again.' It should be treated as a possible real fire each time you hear it. If you do that, the children will get the message very clearly."
If your detector goes off every time you boil water or whenever the bathroom door is opened after a shower, it probably is not in a place that could offer your family the most protection.
"Most detectors are designed to trip if the temperature rises 10 degrees in 60 seconds," Wiseman says. A detector in areas like in the kitchen or near a fireplace or bathroom are not recommended. Moving it to an area with a more even temperature will help you and your family take detector alarms a bit more seriously.
The Lessor of Two Evils
One of the things Wiseman says he sees most frequently in fires where children are injured or killed is that they tend to hide from the flames, especially if they accidentally start the blaze.
"They are afraid they'll get in trouble for playing with matches so they hide and never tell anyone that there is a fire," he says. "We find too many kids dead under their beds or in a closet or behind the door of their rooms." To avoid such a catastrophe, remind your child to always tell an adult if they see a fire, even if they accidentally started it.
"They will be a lot better off getting punished than ending up in a hospital or the morgue," he adds.
Although it is difficult to teach unless you actually visit a firehouse or your child's preschool is visited by firefighters during fire prevention week in October, it is necessary to teach your children that firefighters are just people in protective equipment.
"The equipment can look pretty frightening to a child already scared to death by the sights and sounds around him," says Capt. Rich Holdgren, a firefighter in upstate New York. "When we visit the schools, we introduce the kids to the fireman in a protective uniform by having them watch as we put it on a piece at a time. That seems to really re-enforce the fact that there really is a person under all that stuff."
"We try to teach the kids that if you hear us banging or calling out for you to come to us and not run away or say nothing," Wiseman says. "Sometimes they are just so scared that they think they might be safer if they wait until we have gone away." Such an assumption could end up costing the child his life.
Just like stranger alerts and safety information you pass onto your children about drugs and medicines, it is important to keep your child informed about fire safety. Unfortunately, what they don't know can end up hurting them very badly.
"Teach fire safety the same as you would teach your kids their address and telephone number," Wiseman adds. "It is that important."
Parents often need to be educated, too, about fire safety and prevention. Here are several things you can do now to help your family get out safely in the event of a fire in your home:
- Have Smoke Detectors in Your Home – The
most recent figures from the National Fire Incident
Reporting System show that properly installed smoke
detectors can actually double your chance of survival
in the event of a fire. Make sure you have at least
one on each floor of your home with one located
outside each sleeping area (i.e. if there are three
bedrooms at the end of a hallway, one detector could
be used to cover all three rooms, but if one bedroom
is at one end of the hallway and there is another at
the other end, separate detectors should be used).
- Change Detector Batteries Regularly – Most
fire safety experts agree that the batteries should be
changed at least twice a year. "We like to tell people
to change the batteries when they change their clocks
in the fall and spring," Wiseman says. Also, never
remove the batteries without installing new ones
immediately. The smoke detector can't work if it isn't
connected to its power source.
- Have An Escape Plan – Draw a floor plan of
each level of your home. Make sure everyone in your
family can identify two escape routes to use in case
of a fire. Practice the plan regularly, including
where everyone will report once they get out of the
house. Everyone should be taught to never re-enter a
- Sleep With Your Bedroom Doors Closed –
Since most home fires happen at
night, this can add valuable minutes of protection
against smoke, fire and lethal gases. Always touch the
door before opening it. If it feels hot or warm, keep
it closed and use your alternate route.
- Remember That Smoke and Hot Air Rise – It is estimated that three-fourths of all fire victims die from smoke inhalation and lack of oxygen. Stay close to the ground to keep from inhaling hot smoke or toxic fumes.