Less than a month into 2022, New York City experienced one of the most devastating fires in decades that left 17 dead. Just last week, there was another fire in the Bronx, caused by a gas stove explosion, and this week, a small fire broke out inside John Jay dining hall at Columbia University.

Lori Moore-Merrell. Photo: FEMA / fema.gov

Anyone can become a victim of a fire and the best way to prevent that is by being informed and protecting your home. Epicenter-NYC reporter Andrea Pineda-Salgado spoke with Capt. Michael Kozo, director of the FDNY Fire Safety Education Unit and Lori Moore-Merrell, U.S. fire administrator at FEMA, both of whom gave advice on how to prevent a fire from happening in your home. 

Inspect your fire alarms/smoke detectors

When you first move in, make sure the building and your apartment have up-to-date smoke detectors. It is the responsibility of the landlord to have smoke detectors installed, but it is your job to maintain them by replacing batteries at timely intervals.

“People may take for granted the importance of having and maintaining working smoke and carbon monoxide alarms that reduce your chances of dying in a fire by 50%,” Kozo said. “With the smoke alarms, you want to make sure that you have a combination smoke and carbon monoxide alarm on every level of your home, plus a smoke-only alarm in every bedroom. You should be testing them once a month to make sure that they’re working properly.”

You should also be aware if your building has sprinklers — not every building has them (only buildings over 40 feet should) but knowing yours does can give you the relief that if a fire were to occur the fire would be contained while firefighters are en route. 

Know your building

Before a fire happens, knowing the kind of building you live in can help save your life.

“You definitely need to know the type of building that you live in because that’s going to determine how you’re going to escape if there is a fire or whether you’re going to actually remain in your apartment if there’s a fire in your building,” Kozo said.

There are two kinds of buildings: fireproof and non-fire proof, you can find out which kind you live in through the Department of Buildings website, sometimes it will also be posted in the lobby or the common area. Buildings are fireproof or non-fireproof depending on the construction of the building. Fireproof buildings are made out of materials such as bricks, cement and concrete–materials where a fire won’t be able to spread. Non-fireproof buildings may have materials that include wood. Fires in non-fire proof structures are not easily contained to one part of the building and can spread quickly.

“If you live in a non-fireproof building and the fire is in your apartment or in anyone else’s apartment, you have to get out of that building, the fire will spread from one apartment to the next. If the fire is in your apartment, it is very, very important that you close the door behind you when you leave to keep all of that heat and smoke and fire inside your apartment so it doesn’t contaminate the rest of the building while everybody else is trying to escape,” said Kozo. 

On the contrary, if your building has a fire and you live in a fireproof structure, you may not have to leave your apartment at all. 

“If the fire is not in your apartment, it’s usually safer to stay inside your apartment rather than try to escape this building where you don’t know if the person left the door open. The building is made to contain the fire within the portion of the building that it started—that’s the whole point of a fireproof building. Maybe you see some smoke coming in underneath your door. You throw a damp towel underneath the door to stop the smoke from coming in. You could put duct tape around the door frame, you know, cover any vents that may be letting smoke in. But other than that, you’re usually safer to stay inside your apartment,” said Kozo. 

An example of a fireproof building is the Bronx apartment complex. The fire was contained to a portion of the building and did not spread from apartment to apartment. What made it deadly was that the door was left open, causing the smoke to spread throughout the building endangering tenants. If you live in a fireproof building and a fire starts in your apartment, leave your apartment immediately and remember to close your door

Pay extra attention to your kitchen

Did you know that kitchen fires are the leading cause of fires? The city’s most recent Bronx fire happened because of a gas stove explosion. A key way of preventing a fire is to pay extra attention to your kitchen. 

“We’re seeing a lot of unattended cooking. We’re trying to do several things at one time, and people tend to walk away from the stove while they’re cooking, not realizing that that’s obviously something that you shouldn’t be doing,” Kozo said. “And we are seeing a lot of fires starting that way.”

Making sure you have a smoke detector in your kitchen is key, additionally a fire extinguisher is best. 

You can also stay educated on how to put out certain kitchen fires — not all fires can be put out with just water. 

“A lot of people don’t really realize how you should or shouldn’t be approaching a grease fire. You shouldn’t be putting water on a grease fire. You could use baking soda. You can use an extinguisher. You can use the comforts of the pan. But you definitely don’t want to use water,” Kozo said. 

Be mindful of how you use your kitchen appliances, items like microwaves, toasters and refrigerators—anything used to heat or cool down items—must be plugged into the wall, not extension cords. 

Be aware of what you plug in, and where

Anything you use to heat or cool down your apartment needs to be plugged into a wall. This includes heaters and air conditioners which, under no circumstances, should be plugged into an extension cord or power strip.

Unfortunately, not everyone in New York City has access to heat during the winter and will resort to using heaters to stay warm. Moore-Merrell explains that it is better to be safe than sorry.

“If you are going to be using portable space heaters, please don’t put them near anything that can burn more than 3 feet. We want 3-feet separation between the space heater and anything that is flammable, anything that can burn,” she said. “Understand that space heaters aren’t meant to function 24/7, in perpetuity, forever. Please be aware that this is not a full substitution for, you know, an ongoing heating source.”

Moore-Merrell also recommends reading the instructions of every space heater you buy or are given, don’t automatically assume you know how to use it. 

Stay educated

It is important to stay educated on fire safety. Moore-Merrell urges New Yorkers to stay safe because a fire emergency can happen to anyone. 

“These are the kinds of things that we want to be cognizant of and really the overall attitude of ‘it won’t happen to me.’ We really need to change that because it can happen to anybody,” she said. “We’ve seen that in fact, even across the United States, in the first 10 days of January—just the first 10 days of 2022, we have had 126 fire fatalities in this country. So it can happen.”

Kozo encourages New Yorkers to view the FDNY’s fire safety presentations.

“Our presentations are typically anywhere between 45 minutes to an hour long, and we touch on all of the main topics regarding residential fire safety,” he said. You can access a presentation on the FDNY YouTube Page. You can also request a presentation for your workplace or organization on its website. Lastly, read up on more educational resources on the FDNY website. If you think there is a fire hazard in your building, fill out a complaint form

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