How to Talk to Your Kids About Fire Safety

SSI spoke with Dr. Robert Cole, president of Fireproof Children, on the common mistakes parents make when it comes to relaying the potential dangers of candles, matches, lighters and other risk factors for fires.

Most parents know that all is well when they hear the clicking of their children’s toys in a different room. But when it goes quiet, that’s when mischief takes place. A parent can only respond so quickly to a candle falling over or a lighter being lit. That’s why Cole suggests having child-resistant lighters in the house.

“Even if you’re supervising well and you respond fairly quickly when it gets quiet, the children will have a couple of minutes on their own,” he said. “And if the only ignition source has a child-resistant system on it, it’ll give the parent a margin of safety, an interval of time when they can get there.”

Cole accumulated all this knowledge through nearly 30 years of experience teaching children and their families. Back in the 1980s, Cole was a developmental psychologist at the University of Rochester when the local fire department became very concerned with the number of fires they were responding to that were caused by children.

“Once they started paying attention and systematically recording all the fires started by children, they realized it was a much larger problem than they had recognized,” he said.

The fire department didn’t want to tackle the problem alone, so they reached out to the university for help. They wanted a better understanding of why this was happening and to be refer specific children and their families for some intervention on the issue. Cole was the person they were sent to.

Nearly one in four U.S. homes don’t have working fire alarms.

The rest, as they say, is history.

“The interest has been there [from communities] and it’s held my interest,” Cole said, “and I’ve continued to work on this problem and I’m still working on it today.”

Part of the reason it’s held Cole’s interest for so long is the lessons are not the same for every household. Each house has a separate list of variables and risk factors that need to be incorporated in the family’s fire prevention lessons to their children. These can vary based on whether the home is in an urban or suburban area, north or south, the weather, cultural practices and others.

In some lower-income homes, families might try to “cut corners” with fire safety. They’ll use space heaters — which can be dangerous if things get draped over them or they get kicked — or leave the oven door open and turn the stove on. Parents can get sidetracked in the kitchen by breaking up a fight amongst kids or juggling other chores, which families at a high risk for a kitchen fire.

“A lot of the variability has to do with the kinds of the activities people get involved in, and their belief and understanding in the importance of being careful, and also being prepared,” Cole said.

Being prepared means making sure smoke alarms are fully functional. Don’t just look up at the ceiling, see the smoke detect
or and assume you’re protected, Cole says. Make sure it works.

“It’s appalling to me the number of people we talk to who have never tested their alarm. They don’t know if it works or not.”

Then if the fire alarm goes off, what’s your plan? Do you have one?

Most fires happen during the day, but most fatal fires happen at night.

Establish your primary exit plan and have a backup in case the first exit route is blocked off by the fire. Then relay the plan to your children and practice so if a fire does break out, they’re prepared and not simply staying crouched in their rooms in fear.

Being prepared in those types of situations all originates from talking with your children. Don’t merely ignore the topic, but relay the dangers to your kids and establish your expectations of them.

It can make all the difference.

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