Home & Garden Columns
I was with a very charming couple today. He was French and she was American. They were very different and both very smart and we had a great time looking at an incredible place that needed … like … nothing. Well, not much.
As usual I reeled out scenarios of earthquake and assorted disasters and related how this building might fare in each case. At one point, it occurred to me how absurd I am and I said “Just imagine what my dreams must be like.” Luckily … they laughed. It’s true, though.
I do spend an inordinate amount of time running worse case scenarios of how various things might go wrong, in the pursuit of the best advice for my clients. But truly, I do not live in fear. It’s just interesting and a wonderful challenge. I’m a very lucky person to be doing what I do.
Among the red flag danger signs I try to point out, I’m fairly certain that the most frequent and certainly the most hidden are those involving fire. The building code is busily at work with these as well. Fire is really our most serious threat when it comes to the places in which we live and it occupies a huge amount of what we’re addressing in the building codes and other building standards. It’s probably the central issue in the design of nearly every major component of our houses as well it should be. It’s the one thing we just don’t ever want to face.
So I’d like to offer a little tour around the typical house and touch on just a few of the things it would be best to focus on to minimize this threat.
While there are many things one can do to diminish the likelihood of a fire starting, I would suggest that we refocus of our attention (at least at first) and take a look at how we can be prepared to cope with fire once it occurs. The most important thing is to have many ways to escape from the house and of course, lots of smoke detectors to wake us or alert us to the need to escape.
If in doubt, add more smoke detectors. Put them on ceilings and not on walls. If they’re old, replace them, and change the batteries every year when you change the clocks (you know- “Spring forward, Fall back”). While you’re buying the batteries, pick up a fire extinguisher and hang it by the kitchen entry.
OK. Now you’re awake and the smoke alarm is going off. What next? You want to be able to get out of the house by any door or window in the house. So be sure that no exit is impeded in any way. Window bars are very dangerous in this regard and need to be owned with great awareness of their ability to cause death. Be sure you think they’re worth it. Operable window bars are better, but they prevent firefighters from entering the building (at least quickly and easily.)
They can get through them if there’s time but in a fire, time is what we most lack). If you have operable window bars keep the mechanism clear of furnishings and test them regularly. Remember that when fires get going, people panic and forget how to do basic things. Also, smoke prevents vision and quickly disables occupants.
Even a pane of glass in a paint-stuck window can be a tremendous impediment to escape. With panic and smoke, the simple act of breaking a window may be too much to ask. Make it easy. Get the windows unstuck. All of them. You don’t know where you’ll be when a fire breaks out.
I can’t emphasize this last part about smoke and panic quite enough. Emergency situations can make the obvious action unimaginable and smoke makes everything very hard to manage. In a matter of seconds we can lose our ability to do all the things that we imagined we might in our heroic dream of action. It’s only human. It’s preparation that can make us more able to cope when the time comes.
Modern codes say a lot about window size and height. I’ll give you some of the stats. A window should open to the following minimum size. 20” wide, 24” high and a total openable area of at least 5 square feet. That means that you’re really looking at something like 2’ wide and 30” high, but there’s room for variation. Many of the windows I see in older houses are smaller than this.
You may not need code-approved size, but open the window and see if you can imagine climbing out. Can your family all do the same? Can the kids open the windows? By the way, make sure they know to get out of the house without looking for the adults. Agree on a meeting place like the front lawn so you know that everyone is safe. But the job is to get straight out without delay.
Finishing the code thing with windows, the windowsill should be no more than 44” above the floor. This is to be sure that the firefighter can climb into the room without fear that they will fall through the collapsed floor. They want to touch the floor before committing.
Another thing about windows is to be sure that no locking mechanism more complex than your basic twist lock is being used. If you have keyed locks on windows, please consider removing them. They could be deadly.
If you have a second or third story without an extra outside set of stairs, consider rope or chain ladders for each bedroom (especially for the kiddies) so you don’t have to stand staring at those things at Orchard’s after something really, really bad has happened. They’re not that expensive.
Make sure that no door requires a key in order to leave the dwelling. If you have a “double cylinder” lock, replace it with a single-cylinder lock that has a thumb turn on the inside. If burglars find this easier to steal your stuff, let ‘em have the TV and save your family from a premature terrestrial evacuation.
It may sound severe but it’s really smart to plan for this stuff. Do a drill, even just once. You may discover something huge in the process. I recently had a client who was terribly concerned about her animals and wanted to be sure that there were escape exits for them to the exclusion of any interest in herself. Now, I’m as big an animal lover as any but, please, save yourself first.
If you smoke, remember that you are very likely to cause the fire, so think about limiting your smoking to one place in the house and not in the bedroom. Falling asleep smoking has killed many a smoker as well as many non-smokers.
If you manage to heat without using electric space heaters, you’ll further decrease your chances of a fire. Also, never use an extension cord with a space heater. These cause overheating in the wiring and spark blazes as we sleep. If you can heat the room prior to bed-time, you’ll be better off.
We can’t cover all the things that might set your house ablaze but you can take the time to look at the escapes and make sure that you’ll be able to get outside in plenty of time to watch the house burn down.
I heard a guy on the radio this morning as I was pulling on my argyles talking about how he just lost his house in a fire. He said, “Well, at least the family is safe and that’s the important thing.” Hail brother. Ain’t it the truth. Before I close today, I’d like to share one last thought.
A few years ago I was speaking with John, a Berkeley firefighter during the inspection of his new home in Oakland and so, took advantage of the chance to ask a few questions about what firefighters do. I can’t remember exactly what I was asking, but it had something-or-other to do with getting inside to pull people out of fires.
He stopped me, his face somewhat screwed-up and said “Oh … we don’t do that much anymore. Ever since people started using smoke detectors regularly, we’re just putting out fires. The people are already outside.”
If the message isn’t clear, let me put it just a little more bluntly. Go buy the smoke detectors today. Put batteries in ‘em and put em up on the ceiling of every bedroom and out in the hall on each floor. Don’t wait. Don’t get gelato. Don’t order Netflix. Just get ‘em. That’s how I say “I love you.”