After fatal house fire, York fire chiefs share tips for a safe holiday season

Rebecca Klar
York Dispatch

November amplifies two of the leading causes of house fires: home heating and home cooking. 

It's just the start of a busy house fire season — half of all home fires occur in the months of December, January and February, according to the National Fire Protection Association. 

Despite the challenges the holiday season brings for safety, by following some basic tips residents can protect their homes without sacrificing holiday cheer. 

"Obviously we want you have have a good holiday season and a good winter season and stay warm, but we also want everyone to be safe," said York City Fire Deputy Chief Chad Deardorff, president of the Fire Chief's and Firefighters Association of York County. 

One way to help ensure fire protection is to check home smoke detectors. 

Smoke detectors act as "your eyes and ears" when sleeping, said York Township Fire Chief Nate Tracey. 

A working smoke detector can significantly increase the chance of getting out in case of a fire, he said. 

Fire Chief Nate Tracey, of York Township Fire Department, holds an outdated smoke detector from 2005 which would be replaced, at no charge, by a brand new smoke detector while firefighters canvas homes in York Township to ensure that residents have functioning smoke detectors in their homes, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Checking smoke alarms: It's not enough to have the smoke detector in place; the machines need to be regularly checked and replaced, said Dan Tobin, director of communications for the Greater Pennsylvania Region chapter of the Red Cross. 

The average smoke detector lifespan is 10 years; after about a decade, the machines lose their ability to detect smoke, Tobin said. 

"I think people really don't realize alarms go bad. They have the alarm and think they're doing the right thing and they put them in 20 years ago," he said. "... If your smoke alarm is so old it's not even dated, replace it." 

The York County Coroner's office says one person was found deceased in a residential fire in York Township. The fire occurred Saturday night in the 400 block of Chancellor Road. York Area Regional Police are investigating. Sunday, November 11, 2018. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

Tracey and members of his department canvassed door-to-door on Saturday, Nov. 17, around a development near the 400 block of Chancellor Road — the site of a recent fatal house fire — checking for working smoke detectors. 

Jeffrey Egger, 54, died in the house fire the weekend of Nov. 11. 

In June, the same development lost another resident in a fatal house fire. 

In both cases, the men didn't have working smoke detectors, Tracey said. 

While canvassing, members of the department asked residents if they had working smoke detectors. For those who didn't, the department went in and changed them. 

At the first house he hit, Tracey found a woman who needed her detector changed. He could easily tell by its yellowing color it was overdo, he said. 

The older woman would not have been able to change it herself, he said.

Ideally, the department would hit all the houses in the district, but that's a "monumental feat," Tracey said.

Fire Chief Nate Tracey, right, and volunteer firefighter Brandon Poole, left, of York Township Fire Department, are greeted at the door by resident Howard Yoder, 83, as they canvas homes in York Township, offering safety checks and replacements to ensure that residents have functioning smoke detectors in their homes, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. Tracey and his crew would replace three detectors in Yoder's home. Dawn J. Sagert photo

As people age and become hard of hearing, it can become more difficult to detect the beeps smoke alarms give off to notify when they need to be changed, he said. 

Those unable to check or change their own alarms can also reach out to their local Red Cross for assistance, Tobin said.

Carbon monoxide: Residents should also make sure carbon monoxide detectors are working, Deardorff said. 

"It's different than smoke detectors," he said. "We need to ensure that people aren't misunderstanding that a smoke detector isn't going to help them with a carbon monoxide issue." 

Any resident concerned there is carbon monoxide in his or her home should always call 911, he added. 

"We don't want people second guessing themselves on calling 911 for that; that is an emergency," Deardorff said. "... Best-case scenario, we come out and it's nothing and we go back to the firehouse." 

During the colder months, carbon monoxide incidents rise because of clogs in chimneys and and vent pipes, he said. 

Deardorff recommends having a licensed professional come in for a check before turning on a furnace. 

Heating: Other heating methods, such as fireplaces and space heaters, also pose fire risks.

Heating equipment is involved in one in every seven reported home fires, and one in every five home fire deaths, according to the National Fire Protection Association. 

Deardorff said fireplaces should always have a screen protecting logs from rolling out.

All family members and children should be educated on the dangers associated with fireplaces, and taught not to touch the hot glass in front of fireplaces, he added. 

Fire Chief Nate Tracey, front, and volunteer firefighter Brandon Poole, of York Township Fire Department, canvas homes in York Township, to ensure that residents have functioning smoke detectors in their homes, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Space heaters should solely be plugged into the wall, not into extension cords or power strips — which are often not powerful enough, causing them to melt or catch fire, Tobin  said. 

The National Fire Protection Association recommends only plugging one heat-producing appliance into an electrical outlet at a time. 

Space heaters should also be kept away from flammable objects, such as drapery or any furniture that can easily burn, Tobin said. 

Anything that can burn should be placed at least three feet from any heat source, according to the National Fire Protection Association. 

Cooking: With Thanksgiving and other holiday meals approaching, Deardorff said it's important for residents to remember not to leave any cooking unattended. 

Burners should be turned off when not in use, he added.

Thanksgiving also brings an added concern: deep-fried turkeys. 

If choosing to deep fry a turkey, it's important to make sure it is not wet or frozen when placed into the hot oil, which can cause a minor explosion, Deardorff said. 

Not only can the explosion lead to injury, but depending on where the fryer is located it can lead to a house fire, he said. 

"If you have a deep fryer on a wood deck, you obviously run a risk of it catching fire and extending to the house," he said. 

Christmas lights: Christmas lights are another issue. Before putting up decorative lights, the cords and wires should be checked, Tobin said. 

"Sometimes we use lights over and over again," he said. "Things do go bad; you want to be really cautious of what you're using." 

The public should also be wary of where lights are being placed, Deardorff said. 

Extension cords shouldn't be placed over long distances underneath carpeting, he said. 

"Just basic electronic safety when it comes to the holiday season," Deardorff said. "We want everyone to enjoy the holiday season and spend time with their families, but we also want everyone to be safe."