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What can we do to celebrate?

My two-year-old brother and I were sitting in my room when the smoke detector went off. Its high-pitched squeal told us it was time to get out of the house. We felt for heat on the bedroom door, and finding it cool we crawled down the hallway to the front door. I kept a careful eye on my brother to make sure he stayed low to the ground. When we got outside, we went to the end of our driveway, where the rest of my family was waiting.

"Not bad," my firefighter dad said, “But I think you could have done it faster. Everybody, back to the house for another try!”

After that, my brother always wanted to play “fire drill.” I had to lift him up so he could push the test button on the smoke detector, and then we would crawl on all fours to the closest door. We became pros at evacuating our home.

To help celebrate Fire Prevention Week, we want to give you the basic background on its beginnings, some tips and suggestions on fire safety, and some fun activities for you and your family that help you learn what to do in a fire.

The roots of National Fire Prevention Week can be found in the Great Chicago Fire, which occurred on October 9, 1871. No one really knows for sure how the fire started, but one popular legend says it began when resident of Chicago, Mrs. O’Leary, was milking her cow. The animal kicked over a lamp, causing the whole barn to catch on fire. The fire quickly spread to the neighbors and surrounding buildings.

The blaze lasted 27 hours, and destroyed more than 2,000 acres. The “Burn District” was an area four miles long and about three-quarters of a mile wide. The city of Chicago remained so hot that it was two days before residents could even start to survey the physical damage. One hundred thousand Chicagoans lost their homes, and an uncounted number lost their places of work.

To celebrate the restoration of the city of Chicago, the Fire Marshals’ Association of North America decided the 40th anniversary of the fire should be celebrated by informing the public about the importance of fire prevention. In 1925, President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed October 4-10 the first National Fire Prevention Week.

We now observe this anniversary during the week of October 9th. This gives the National Fire Protection Association the opportunity to educate people about fire safety and preparedness. These issues are important because the danger of not being prepared can be catastrophic.

NFPA estimates that 80% of all fire deaths occur in the home. Roughly 11 people die in home fires in the U.S. and Canada every day. Time is the largest factor in a house fire. Many people assume they can react quickly when faced with a fire, but most fire fatalities occur in the home while you are asleep. The more prepared you are, the quicker you can escape unharmed. Here are some general safety tips to keep your home fire-safe:

  • Develop an emergency floor plan. Have at least two exits available from each room. If you choose a window as one exit, make sure there is a way to reach the ground safely. A rope or ladder may need to be placed at the window.
  • Install a fire/smoke detector on every level of your home, near each bedroom. Make sure it will warn you of all types of fires. Remember, the smell of smoke will not wake you at night; the fumes may even put you in a deeper sleep. You need a loud noise to wake you up!
  • Test the fire/smoke detector monthly; make each test a chance to practice your escape route with your family.
  • Keep portable space heaters at least 3 feet from anything that can burn (curtains, bedding, clothing, etc.)
  • Store all matches and lighters up high, preferably in a locked cabinet.
  • Keep fire extinguishers designed for A-B-C (combination) fires near the kitchen (22% of all home fires occur in the kitchen) and near doors for easy access. Make sure everyone knows where your extinguishers are located, and how to operate them.
  • Eliminate hazards in your home that could block escape paths in an emergency, such as bars on windows, stacked books or magazines, or cumbersome furniture.

Teaching children about fire safety can be a lot of fun. Make it entertaining! Here are some suggestions from the Fire Prevention Week web site ( Just like my little brother, your kids will be asking to play these fun games all the time!

Fire Drill

Develop an evacuation plan for getting your family out of your house in case of a fire. Choose a safe place for everyone to meet, which is far enough away from the house to be out of harms way. At the end of the drill, have your child pretend to go to a neighbor’s house to call 9-1-1. Practice this often, and try to get out faster each time. Make it a family competition!

Stop, Drop and Roll!

Each time you have the fire drill, teach children about what they should do if their clothes catch on fire. In a large room, or a grassy area outside, have the kids start walking or running in place. At the given signal, have them stop immediately, drop to the ground, and roll until the “flames” are out. If this is done enough times, stop, drop, and roll will be an automatic response for them.

Fire Prevention Badges

As a fun reward for learning new fire safety tips, cut out badges for your children to decorate with markers or crayons. Use a marker to write sayings on their badges, like “Stop, drop and roll certified” or “Fastest escape route” or “(Child’s name) doesn’t play with matches.”

For more information, contact your local fire department or the Federal Emergency Management Agency, P.O. Box 70274, Washington, D.C. 20024, ATTN: Publications, for the following publications (single copy requests only):

  • An Ounce of Prevention (FA-76): smoke detectors save lives!
  • Winter- Fire Safety Tips for the Home (L-97): room heating, fireplaces, furnaces, etc.