Childwise: Fire Safety

Childwise logoKathleen GansterChildwise is a medical advice column for parents of children ages birth to 21. 

By Kathleen Ganster

It seems every time we turn on the news, there is a fire to report, sadly often with fatalities. Keeping your children safe from fire – and preventing a fire – is important to every parent.

To provide some helpful fire safety tips I talked with Chris Vitale, Manger of Injury Prevention, at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.

Taking some simple measures goes a long way in fire prevention and safety, according to Vitale.

“It is important to realize that children are curious about fire. It is better to explain it to them about how dangerous it is and to prevent any opportunity they have to accidentally cause a fire,” she explained.

Vitale said that for children under 5, the most common burns are scalds.

“We tell parents don’t bath your children in the sink. They can reach over and turn on the hot water before you know it,” she said. And parents of infants should never carry something hot while carrying the child.

Chris Vitale
Chris Vitale

“You never know when the baby may kick it or reach for it and you either spill it on the baby or drop the baby,” said Vitale.

Over the age of 5, most injuries are caused by children playing with matches and fire, said Vitale. Keeping matches, lighters, candles, etc. away from curious children is the first step, but keeping pets away from these things is also a preventative measure.

“Dogs can knock over candles and cats can get just about anywhere to knock things over,” she explained.

Lighters are particularly attractive to children because they are colorful, make a cool noise and produce fire, of course.

“It is hard to explain to a child that fire hurts without them getting burned, but you have to let them know how dangerous it is,” she said.

Keeping smoke alarms working is also vital, but may not be enough, especially with smaller children, said Vitale.

“Young children will often sleep through a smoke-detector,” she said. Parents should test the alarm once a month with children present so that they realize what the alarms sound like and become aware that it is an important sound.

Parents can also purchase new smoke alarms that actually record their voices telling the children to wake up, according to Vitale.

“Children are more likely to wake up to sound of their parents’ voices so these can be very effective. They are more expensive than a regular smoke alarm, but not outrageous,” she said.

There should be a smoke alarm on every level of the home, especially outside of the bedrooms.

And every family should have a fire escape plan, said Vitale.

“Even the young children can be involved. Make a sketch of the house and show them how to get out of the house two ways in case one is blocked by fire,” she said.

Practice the drills at least twice a year.

“When you change your batteries in your smoke detector, it is a good time to practice your fire drills,” said Vitale.

Parents should have a plan on evacuating small children who are too young to escape on their own. Older children can be responsible for a sibling. And there should be a safe meeting place outside of the home.

“It should be far enough away that everyone is safe, but everyone knows where it is. The first thing everyone needs to know is get out safely, and then call 911. Don’t call 911 and then get out,” she said.

Families who live in an apartment or multi-level home may want to purchase a fire escape ladder, a chain-like ladder that hooks onto a window for escape.

“But if you have one, you should definitely practice using it,” said Vitale.

And obviously, never leave children alone in a house, not even for a few minutes.

“Anything can happen,” said Vitale.

Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC also has educational materials for families on fire safety. Parents can visit the website at www. (type in fire safety) or visit the Safety Center at the Hospital.

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