Beating blazes before they begin

There are thousands of domestic fires every year in Britain – and they can have deadly results. The best way to fight the flames? Preventing them in the first place

Six people died on 3 July this year when fire broke out in a 12-storey block of flats in Camberwell, south London. Such a big tragedy came as a shock in this age of rapid-response emergency services. It has been reported that firefighters were called and arrived within minutes. One hundred of them, armed with 18 pumps, worked as fast as they could – they rescued 40 people – but their tallest ladders only extended up around 100ft and the worst of the disaster was beyond their reach.

Some people have speculated that the problem lay in the design of the 1958 high-rise, which had no external staircase and narrow fire exits leading to the central stairwell. Other possible contributing factors include the fact that vandals had removed the hinges from some of the fire doors and fire-escape passages had been blocked by rubbish bags. Some wiring was also reported to have been exposed when wooden panels were ripped from the walls. It did not help that local authority inspections had become less frequent than in the past.

While we await a full explanation for what happened in Camberwell, we can all evaluate the fire safety of our own homes. According to the latest government statistics published on fires in the UK (for 2006), "dwelling fires" were at their lowest since 1978, at 55,800. But there were still 295 fatalities and 9,300 casualties in accidental home fires.

I visit my local fire station to meet Carl Pullen, community liaison officer for Chelmsford and Maldon Community Command, and the crew of firefighters on watch. Is there any period or style of property they'd advise people not to live in, for fire-safety reasons? Most – reassuringly – shake their heads. It seems that the main problems are caused by property maintenance, not design.

However, Pullen explains that open-plan living spaces, while they may look good, are less impressive if fire breaks out, because it will spread more quickly. "You can buy doors that will hold back a fire for 30 minutes, but even a standard door should slow down a domestic fire by 20 minutes and, most importantly, keep the smoke out," says Pullen. Another modern trend, external wooden decking, may also present a risk when cigarettes or barbecue coals slip between the slats.

A couple of the crew members mention that there are problems with high-rise buildings and thatched cottages, but they had been called to fires at both those styles of properties earlier in the week and all had gone well.

Pullen says that "although thatched places normally burn down to the ground – partly because the roof is made to resist water – we saved this one. It was started by an Aga." The high-rise fire – on the eighth floor – was extinguished in "textbook style". It was also caused by a cooker.

Sheila Merrill, head of home safety at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) says that "the main cause of accidental dwelling fires is the misuse of appliances [which caused 16,200 fires in 2006], with the main source of ignition being cooking appliances which accounted for 56 per cent of them".

She says the leading cause of domestic fire fatalities was careless handling of lit or hot substances (including cigarettes), and the highest fatality rate is for fires which started in the living or dining room. So, along with minding our cookers and cigarettes, we also need to be careful about overloading sockets and leaving appliances on standby, as well as taking care with the atmospheric candles we love so much.

"All candles should be placed at least four inches apart from each other and away from curtains. It sounds obvious, but people put them underneath shelves, or fail to realise how hot the base of a tea light can become: they can melt right through the plastic on top of a television, so they must always be placed in a suitable container," says Merrill.

When it comes to fixtures and fittings, Pullen cautions against polystyrene ceiling tiles and says that although modern foam furniture should be flame-retardant, older soft furnishings may well be hazardous. Maybe it's time to replace that saggy, old sofa for a safer and more comfortable new one.

Both Merrill and Cullen stress two key factors in home fire safety: fit smoke alarms (pictured above) and work out an escape plan. "Smoke alarm ownership increased rapidly from 8 per cent in 1988 to 70 per cent in 1994, but has risen more slowly in recent years to around 80 per cent," according to Merrill.

She says that ideally we should all fit one on each storey of a property; batteries should be checked regularly, even though some smoke alarms come with 10-year batteries. Never be tempted to remove batteries for use in other appliances, especially not for all the new toys at Christmas, because, says Pullen, Christmas decorations are a common fire hazard.

"Although all rental properties should conform to fire-safety standards," he says, "private landlords are our biggest problem. They just want the cash." Whether you rent or own your property, if you are worried about fire safety, call your local fire service who should be able to come in and perform a free risk assessment. They can also advise on planning an escape route.

"Your main exit in a fire should be your usual exit," says Pullen, "And it's important you keep this exit clear." But you should also think through other evacuation routes and, Merrill suggests, draw up a fire plan and stick it up somewhere that children can see it. In children's rooms, safety catches can be fitted to the windows so that they can be opened by adults, but there's no risk of the child falling out if they try to open the window themself. In the event of a fire, you should follow the tried and trusted advice: get out, call 999 and stay out.

>Burning issue: Fire cover

According to the Association of British Insurers, we claimed £409,000,000 for damage caused by 52,000 domestic fires in 2008. In the first quarter of 2009 we have claimed £94,000,000 for 13,000 domestic fires.

Erica Nelson, a spokeswoman for Direct Line insurance says that although the home and contents insurers generally advise clients to fit smoke alarms and take sensible precautions against fire, insurance companies are unlikely to reject a claim if you have made a 'reasonable' human error. "But if, say, you decided to sacrifice a small animal by fire in your living room and then decided to go out and leave it to burn, we probably would regard that as unreasonable", Nelson explains.

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