In the USA in 2006, there were 412,500 home fires that killed 2,580 people and injured another 12,925 people. That’s scary! On the average, these same fires killed one person with hearing loss every 15 hours, and injured a person with hearing loss every 3 hours. That’s really scary if you are one of the 70 million Americans with hearing loss!
You don’t have to become one of those statistics. Although having a hearing loss puts you at a decided disadvantage when using standard alerting devices to warn you of fires, you can put the odds in your favor if you follow these four basic steps.
1. Practice Good Fire Hygiene
Fires don’t know, or care, whether you are hard of hearing. They strike when provided with the right conditions. Therefore, your first line of defense in fire safety is preventing fires from starting in the first place.
Here are some of the most common causes of easily-preventable house fires. Preventing such fires will significantly increase your odds of not becoming a fire statistic.
Smoking: Smoking is the leading cause of fire deaths in the home, resulting in one out of every four fire deaths in the home. If you smoke, be especially careful that you do not dispose of hot ash in the trash. Surprisingly, this is the leading cause of smoking-related fires. The second most common cause of smoking-related fires is accidentally setting fire to beds and bedding. Coming in third is cigarettes or cigars setting fire to upholstered furniture. Fires in bedding and to furniture typically happen when you fall asleep while smoking—so don’t smoke when you are tired. Better yet, don’t smoke at all.
Alcohol: Alcohol is involved in about 40% of all home fire deaths. No doubt, alcohol and smoking go hand in hand. Smoking and drinking increases the odds of accidentally igniting furniture or bedding.
Candles: Seventy percent of US households now use candles, especially during winter holidays. In 2001, candles were responsible for 6% of all fire fatalities in the home. Forty-one percent of candle fires began in the bedroom, killing a high proportion of the sleeping occupants. Candle fires often result when people use candles to light their homes when the power fails, and then forget about them, or when they leave combustible material too close to the candles. When using candles, blow them out before you leave the room or go to sleep.
Space heaters: Although heating equipment accounted for 16% of all home fires and 21% of home fire deaths, a whopping 80% of these fires and 66% of the resulting deaths came from portable and fixed space heaters. The leading cause of such fires was having combustible materials too close to space heaters. Keep the area around electric or wood-burning space heaters clear of all papers and other items that can burn.
Kitchens: More fires start in the kitchen than in any other room in the home. In fact, kitchen fires are the number one cause of home fires (40%) and home fire injuries (36%) and result in 15% of home fire deaths.
The leading cause of kitchen fires is leaving the stove unattended. The solution is simple—if your stove is on, you need to stay in the kitchen! It’s so easy to get distracted doing other things (especially as we get older) and forget we’ve left the stove on. When we can’t hear well, we typically don’t hear the little sounds that can warn us of impending doom. That’s why we need to be there to keep an eye on things.
Here’s how easily and unexpectedly something can happen. One time I was hard-boiling some eggs and left the kitchen for a minute. Then I got engrossed in what I was doing and totally forgot about the eggs and the pot slowly boiling dry on the stove. What brought me running back to the kitchen much later was the sound of the eggs exploding! (Don’t count on this though. Sometimes they just crack, and don’t explode to get your attention.) Fortunately, this did not cause a fire, but it was a close call. I now have a little timer (Quake-N-Wake 3-Alert Multi-Timer that I clip to my belt or pocket if I leave the kitchen while something is cooking. The Quake-N-Wake’s vibration, flashing light and beeps get my attention when the timer goes off.
Clothes driers: Clothes driers account for the largest share of appliance fires in the home. The most common cause is lack of maintenance. Drier vents, vent hoses and pipes can become clogged with dust and lint. The lint then catches fire, or the heat backs up into the drier and your clothes catch fire. One such fire call I answered when I was a firefighter came in at 1:30 A.M. when it was 35 degrees below zero! Not the ideal time to lose your house to a fire! (Not the ideal time for firefighters to fight fires either, what with hoses freezing up!) To prevent such fires, the solution is simple—regularly clean and maintain your drier.
2. Have Working Smoke Detectors
Since smoke detectors came into common use in the 1970s, home fire deaths have fallen 50%. That’s how well they do their jobs. Yet you may wonder, “Why are so many people still dying in home fires?”
Good question. The scary truth is that currently 70% of all home fire deaths occur in the 5% of houses without smoke detectors, and in the 25% of homes without working smoke detectors.
Just having smoke detectors in your home isn’t enough. You have to keep them in good working order. Never disconnect your smoke detector to avoid “nuisance” alarms. Did you know that in one out of every five homes equipped with at least one smoke detector, not even one smoke detector is in working order! That’s not only scary; it’s downright dangerous to your health!
The most common reason for smoke detectors not working is missing, dead or disconnected batteries. That is why you must check/replace your smoke detectors’ batteries at least twice a year. Fire departments recommend you do this each spring and fall when you reset your clocks between daylight saving and standard time.
Another thing that few people realize is that smoke detectors age. As they age, they become more unreliable. In fact, smoke detectors that are 10 years old have a 30% chance of failing. Thus, the National Fire Protection Association recommends that you replace your smoke detectors every 10 years.
How old are the smoke detectors in your home? I replaced all the smoke detectors in my house a few months ago. They were 9 years old at the time, and one had already begun failing. If your smoke detectors are more than 10 years old, throw them out and replace them with new ones. It’s that important if you value your life.
3. Have an Effective Alerting System
Having working smoke detectors in your home is only part of the equation. It presupposes you can hear actually your smoke detectors when they go off. Surprisingly, this is not always the case. Consider the following statistics. Twenty percent of home fires occur between the hours of 11:00 PM and 7:00 AM, yet these fires account for a whopping 52% of all home fire deaths.
It’s scary to think that roughly 40% of the people killed in home fires die in their sleep without ever waking. It’s even more alarming to realize that roughly 30% of deaths due to fires in the home are caused by fires in which a smoke alarm is present and operating properly! Obviously, many people are not hearing their smoke detectors warning them.
One reason for this is that most smoke detectors produce a relatively high-frequency (3,100 Hz) sound. Recent studies have revealed that this frequency of sound is not particularly effective in waking up various classes of people with normal hearing such as children, heavy sleepers, people in deep levels of sleep, people taking sleeping pills and other medications and people who have had too much to drink. In addition, high-frequency alarms are almost totally ineffective in alerting people with high-frequency hearing loss (which includes more than 90% of hard of hearing people) and all deaf people.
Another reason why hard of hearing people are at greater risk from night-time fires is that our hearing aids or cochlear implants are peacefully reposing on the bed table beside us where they can’t alert us when our smoke detectors futilely try to warn us. This is why those of us with hearing loss need special alerting devices to wake us up.
If you have hearing people in your home, you may think you can just rely on them to warn you of a fire. This may work at times, but people may not always be there for you—they could be at work, shopping or traveling when calamity strikes. Therefore, you need an alarm system that meets your needs for when you are alone.
The good news is that, although no current alerting systems meet all our needs in every situation, some new products do come close. The ideal device would not only sound an alarm, but would also flash a light, and vibrate our beds. That would alert our three most important senses simultaneously. This tri-modal alerting system is necessary at times. For example, we may have just gotten up so can’t feel the bed shaking, and may not have put our hearing aids in yet, so can’t hear the audible alarm; therefore, a visual alert at this point is critically important.
Since there is no perfect system, you need to match your lifestyle and hearing loss to the system that best meets your overall needs. Some people with hearing loss rely on their hearing ear service dogs. Hearing ear dogs are an excellent and intelligent alerting system if you have one. The rest of us must rely on technology to alert us to fires and other emergencies. Fortunately for us, two wonderful new systems have just come out. I’ve been testing both of them.
The Lifetone HL™ Bedside Fire Alarm & Clock alerts you by sounding a loud low-frequency alarm, and, if you are in bed, by vibrating your bed. This fire alarm is one of the first fire alarm systems to use 520 Hz square wave technology. Recent studies have shown that a 520 Hz square-wave sound breaks through sleep and wakes almost everyone (between 92% to 96% of people), even those with high-frequency hearing loss. Other studies have shown that intermittent bed shakers wake up virtually 100% of the people using them. It’s almost impossible to sleep through the double whammy of the low-frequency alarm sounding and the bed shaking.
The Lifetone fire alarm system works with existing smoke detectors in your house. You don’t have to purchase special ones. Note: the Lifetone only “hears” smoke detectors that put out the standard T3 signal. Since all smoke detectors sold since 1998 conform to the T3 standard, this is another good reason to make sure all your smoke detectors are less than 10 years old.
Each Lifetone unit is always “listening”, and if any smoke detector in your house should go off, within 20 seconds it sounds its alarm. Another cool feature with the Lifetone system is that when one unit goes off (say in the master bedroom), within a few seconds, any other units in your house begin sounding too—even through closed doors and on different floors. Its microphone is that sensitive. I tried it myself and was thoroughly impressed!
The new Silent Call® Signature Series makes another great alerting system that works with more than just smoke detectors. It can also alert you to carbon monoxide detectors, weather radio emergency messages and burglar alarms as well as to phones ringing, doorbells chiming, sound monitors sounding, etc. Furthermore, the Silent Call system can tie into your existing house fire alarm or smoke detector system and/or work with its own stand-alone devices. I use it both ways at once.
Silent Call’s Sidekick II bed table receiver has all the features of the wristwatch, as well as a lighted alarm clock and battery backup. A flashing strobe light and colored indicator lights activate so you can see which device has alerted.
With the Sidekick II, when any alerting device goes off, the bed shaker alerts you. If you are already awake or just getting up, you’ll see the flashing strobe light.
The Silent Call system can monitor up to three Silent Call smoke detectors and indicate which one is going off. It addition it warns you when any of them are not working or need new batteries.
As its name implies, the Silent Call system does not use audible alerts. I’d love to see them incorporate sound into their system in the future to make their system even more useful for both hearing and hard of hearing people.
There are other systems available, but I think these two are the best and most versatile currently on the market.
4. Have a Dress Rehearsal
Now that you have eliminated as many of the common fire hazards as you can in your home, have checked/replaced your smoke detectors and have purchased assistive devices to alert you, there is one final, but critical, step you need to take. You need to try out your new devices and practice your fire escape plan.
Your life initially depends on your assistive devices alerting you. That is why you should purchase the best. However, do you know whether your alerting device will wake you up under real-life conditions—when you are in a deep sleep, when you have had too much to drink, when you have taken sleeping pills or other medications, when your hearing aids are off?
The only way to know for sure is to have someone set them off when you least expect it and see how you react. Your brain needs to learn that these sounds and sensations mean an emergency is occurring and bolt you out of bed. Your brain only learns this with practice. Firemen learn to wake up instantly when a fire alarm goes off. Their feet hit the floor running. You need to learn to do the same.
When your smoke detector goes off—get out! You may only have 2 or 3 minutes before it can be too late. One shocking survey revealed that only 8% of those whose smoke detectors sounded thought they were in a real fire and that they needed to get out! In another study, 56% said they would investigate to find the source of the alarm rather than get out. This is a sure way to increase the odds of becoming another fire statistic.
Not only do you need to take immediate action, you need to take the right action—and that means having an effective family fire escape plan. Fewer than 25% of Americans have an escape plan and have practiced getting out. Maybe you think that because your bedroom window is just a few feet from the ground, you won’t have any problems getting out. Have you tried getting out that window to be sure? Maybe the window sticks, or is frozen shut, or maybe the screen refuses to budge. Maybe you’ve put on so much weight you won’t fit through it, or maybe you are no longer strong or agile enough to get your body up on the windowsill. The only way you’ll know for sure is to try it. First, experiment sometime during the day when you can take your time and see what you are doing. Then, after you have your escape procedures down pat, try escaping in the middle of the night without turning on any lights (the fire could have cut your electricity). That is the true test of whether your plan really works.
Incidentally, although men are more likely to be hurt trying to fight a fire, women are more likely to be hurt trying to escape from the fire. That is why you need to practice your escape route to be sure you can do it quickly and safely.
Now, and only now, are you prepared for a fire in your home. You have working smoke detectors. You have effective alerting systems beside your bed and perhaps elsewhere. You have practiced your escape plan. Finally, because you have reduced fire hazards in your home, you have greatly reduced the chances you’ll have to implement your plan, but, if your alarm system ever goes off, you know exactly what to do in order to save your life and the lives of those in your home. That alone makes it all worthwhile, doesn’t it?
The following link gives more information and ordering links for the Silent Call Signature Series systems.
Most of the statistics quoted in this article come from “Fire Safety Statistics from the NFPA” and compiled by the City of Marshfield, WI.
This basic article in slightly different format was published in the Fall 2009 edition of Hearing Health magazine, pp. 12-15.