Fire safety is not often top of mind during the holidays, but with roaring fires, candles, potentially flammable decorations (including the family Christmas tree), and electric light strings, the threat of disaster is always present. You've got enough on your mind getting everything ready for the holidays; just follow basic safety guidelines and you'll have nothing extra to worry about.
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Decorate Safely for the Holidays
Decorating your home for the holidays, both inside and out, is a fun and festive family activity. Do it with safety in mind to keep both your loved ones and your home safe from fire, electrical and other hazards this holiday season.
Because a fireplace is an open flame inside your house, it is a feature that demands caution and respect. Keep all flammable objects away from your fireplace. This includes Christmas trees, stockings, tinsel, garland and candles. Natural Christmas trees can be very flammable, especially as their branches and needles begin to dry out. Take down stockings before you light a fire. Don't let garland and tinsel hang over the mantel close to the fire. Keep candles on the mantel in glass containers. Be sure that you use your fireplace screen to keep sparks and embers from falling or popping out of the fireplace onto your rug or carpet.
Warn your children about the potential danger of fire and playing near a fireplace.
Keep matches, lighters and other ignition sources out of reach of children.
Don’t burn wrapping paper in a fireplace. A flash fire may result because wrapping paper can ignite instantly.
Have your chimney cleaned or swept once a year before you start using it. Chimney fires are one of the leading causes of house fires. Most can be prevented by routine maintenance and cleaning.
Keep natural trees alive and fresh. A living tree stays green longer and makes it less likely to act as dry kindling that can easily catch fire. If you will be buying a precut tree, make sure it is freshly cut. Touch the needles and branches to see if a significant amount comes off in your hand. Lightly bang the base of the tree on the ground; if many needles fall off, the tree is not fresh. If the tree is fresh, you should be able to smell the tree's fragrance easily. Also, test the limbs to see if they are sturdy enough to hold the weight of ornaments. The tree should be a dark green color all over with no areas of brown needles. Check to be sure that the bottom of the tree trunk is sticky with resin. Needles should not break when bent between your fingers.
Consider using an artificial tree that is rated as fire resistant. Many artificial trees are designed to be fire resistant. If you buy one, look for a statement confirming that it has this protection.
Regularly check the floor around your tree for any fallen ornaments that can be stepped on or broken by small children and pets, causing injury.
Place both natural and artificial trees away from fireplaces, radiators and other heat sources. When you get a natural tree home, cut off at least 2" of the trunk at the bottom. The fresh wood will better absorb water in the tree stand. Keep the stand filled with water at all times.
Don't place the tree in high-traffic areas where it could get knocked over by children or pets or where your family could trip over tree light electrical cords. Trees are usually best placed in a corner or in front of a window for optimum effect.
Consider anchoring the tree to a wall with a thin rope or heavy-duty string and an eyebolt as an added safety feature to help stabilize the tree. You can use this safety feature and easily hide it so that it doesn’t detract from your tree’s appearance.
Keep burning candles away from decorations, garland and wrapping paper. Always place candles where they can’t be knocked over or fall, and keep them in non-flammable holders. Never use candles on trees or near other potentially flammable foliage. Remember to always keep candles where you can see them and in a place where children and pets can’t reach them. Another option to consider is flameless candles. These candles come in scents and are battery operated.
Don’t leave burning candles unattended. Extinguish all candles before going to bed at night or when you’re leaving the house.
Have a Fire Plan
Come up with an emergency escape plan in case of a fire. Try to include at least two ways to escape from each room in your home (this is not always feasible, depending on your home). Map out your plan on paper and be sure it includes emergency phone numbers. Post a copy in each bedroom. Try to review the plan with the whole family once a month.
Retractable ladders are a necessity for bedrooms on the second floor or higher. Everyone in your family needs to know how to climb out of a window and down a ladder in case of an emergency. Be sure to show everyone how to crawl under smoke to escape during a fire and how to cover their mouths and noses with shirts or towels to keep from breathing in smoke.
Decide on a meeting spot that is outside and away from the house. Be sure all children know what smoke and fire alarms sound like so they will recognize them during a fire. Teach your children the "Stop, Drop and Roll" technique for putting out a fire on their clothes or in their hair.
Teach your family how to use fire extinguishers. To operate a fire extinguisher, just remember P.A.S.S: Pull the pin, Aim the nozzle, Squeeze the handle and Sweep from side-to-side as it sprays to extinguish the flames. Recharge all extinguishers after any test. Check it regularly to ensure that it is charged.
The decorative lights you use both indoors and out can be potential fire and electrical hazards. Use only indoor lighting for your holiday lights inside your home. This may seem like obvious advice, but people often don't know there's a difference. Holiday lights are rated for indoor or outdoor use and must be used in their intended settings. For example, outdoor lights burn brighter and thus, create more heat, which increases the chance of a fire if they are used inside. The same goes for extension cords. For outdoor lights, only use heavy-duty extension cords rated for outdoor use.
Check your light strings for fraying, breaks or tearing. Before you hang them, check each bulb and the entire wire for any kind of damage. Look specifically for places where bare wires are exposed. If you see extensive damage, the strand needs to be replaced.
Whether you are hanging lights indoors or outdoors, don't use staples, nails or other sharp objects to hang them. You risk damaging the wire, which can then potentially cause a fire or electrocution. Use insulated holders specifically manufactured for hanging holiday lights. Don't hang indoor lights near your fireplace.
Be sure your holiday lights are UL-approved. Underwriters Laboratories (UL) evaluates thousands of products each year for safety and assurance. Products that bear the UL mark have passed stringent tests and meet high safety standards. Check the packaging to see if the UL stamp is present. If it is, the product is very safe to use as long as it's used properly.
Unplug all holiday lights before leaving home or going to bed.
Avoid overloading electrical outlets or extension cords. Use no more than three standard-size sets of lights per single extension cord.
Keep all cords out of the way in high-traffic areas in your home.
Never use electric lights on a metallic tree. The tree can become charged with electricity from faulty wires.
To add protection against electric shock, outdoor electric lights and decorations should be plugged into ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlets.
Keep your lights in proper working condition by taking outdoor lights down as soon as the holidays are over and storing all lights properly. Consider investing in a holiday light storage reel on which to store your lights. You can also make your own. Save wrapping paper and paper towel tubes to wrap the lights around to keep them from tangling. Store each light string in its own plastic bag or container. When unplugging light strings, always pull the plug from the receptacle by the plug, not the cord. Check the lights for any signs of weakness as you did when you pulled them from storage to hang them. Store the lights in a dry place, preferably in a waterproof storage container and off the floor where they are safe from dampness.
When stringing lights and garland in high, hard-to-reach locations, both indoors and out, you will require a ladder. Familiarize yourself with basic ladder safety procedures. Be wary of placing the ladder on any slick, icy spots on the ground outside. Be very careful around overhead electrical wires, especially when moving ladders around or near the locations of service lines attached to the house. Invest in an adjustable ladder stabilizer and/or have someone hold the ladder for you while you work with lights.
Here are some other basic tips from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC):
- Make sure the weight your ladder is supporting does not exceed its maximum load rating. There should only be one person on the ladder at one time.
- Use a ladder that is the proper length for the job. Proper length is a minimum of 3' extending over the roofline or working surface. Do not stand on the top three rungs of a straight, single or extension ladder.
- Straight, single or extension ladders should be set up at about a 75-degree angle.
- All metal ladders should have slip-resistant feet.
- Be sure all locks on extension ladders are properly engaged.
- Do not place a ladder in front of a door that is not locked, blocked or guarded.
- Keep your body centered between the rails of the ladder at all times. Do not lean too far to the side while working.
- Do not step on the top step, bucket shelf or attempt to climb or stand on the rear section of a stepladder. Never leave a raised ladder unattended.
- Follow instruction labels on ladders.
That's it! You now have the know-how to safely decorate your home for the season. Have a safe and happy holiday!
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