Health Encyclopedia

House Fires: Don't Underestimate Them

You just threw a party at your home. The last guest just left, and you're going to bed. But there's something you don't know: One of your guests accidentally dropped a cigarette butt on the living room sofa earlier in the evening. It's smoldering between the cushions.

How long do you have to escape between the time the cigarette fully ignites the sofa and the fire becomes deadly? 

If you answered more than two minutes, you're dead wrong.

According to a survey a few years ago by the nonprofit National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), almost nine in 10 Americans believed they had less than 30 minutes to escape a home fire. 

In reality, a typical living room fire can become deadly in two minutes--or less--after the smoke alarm sounds. And such a fire almost certainly has the potential to kill household members in as little as four minutes after it began.

Designed to measure people's attitudes toward fire and the need for escape planning, NFPA's survey reveals that Americans have dangerously unrealistic perceptions about fire, and they underestimate the speed at which it spreads. Furthermore, the survey revealed that most respondents have had personal experience with fire alarms at home and other locations, yet a majority reacted in ways that would have significantly increased their risk had a real fire occurred.

Although 66 percent of the survey respondents said they had a home escape plan, only 35 percent of that group had practiced it. The NFPA reports that one reason individuals may not have a plan is because they think they have much more time to escape than they actually have.

In addition, although 40 percent of respondents had had home smoke detectors go off in the past year, only 8 percent reacted immediately as though there might be fire. Out of the ones who had a smoke alarm go off, 69 percent were due to cooking problems, 13 percent were battery problems, and 5 percent were caused by steam, most likely from a shower. The NFPA recommends working with fire alarm companies to ensure the right alarm is used in the right place.

Other key findings from NFPA's survey:

  • Men feel slightly more prepared for a home fire than women.

  • Of the small number (13 percent) of Americans who have experienced a home fire, the most common reason was a cooking accident (26 percent), followed by faulty heating equipment (16 percent), and problems with electrical wiring or lamps (13 percent).

  • In a national smoke detector project, NFPA found that a third of homes that had false alarms had their smoke alarms incorrectly placed. Many of the devices were placed less than five feet from heat sources, such as smoke or steam, than can cause a nuisance alarm.

Take the time to make sure the smoke detectors in your home have working batteries and are placed appropriately throughout your home. Be sure to discuss and practice an escape plan with your family as well. 



Medical Reviewers:

  • Freeborn, Donna, PhD, CNM, FNP
  • newMentor board-certified, academically affiliated clinician