The Flare Necessities

by Ann Douglas


Lisa MacKay swung into action mode the moment as she first smelled something burning, frantically checking every room of her Cornwall, PEI, house until she was able to pin down the source of the fire: a toppled over desk lamp and smouldering quilt on her three-year-old son Alexander’s bed. It was only after she’d managed to drag the mattress and blankets out of the house that she realized that the smoke detector in the hall outside her son’s room had been too far away from the fire to detect the clouds of smoke that were building up inside her son’s bedroom. In the aftermath of this close call, MacKay decided to install smoke detectors in all of her children’s bedrooms rather than relying on the smoke detector in the hall to alert family members of a possible fire. “I was so shocked and upset that the hall smoke detector hadn’t gone off. I feel a lot safer knowing that there’s a smoke detector in every bedroom now.”

Like it or not, disaster planning is part of a parent’s job description. You owe it to your kids to keep them safe, and that means taking steps to prevent fires and other emergency situations in the home. You also need to give some thought to overall emergency preparedness — how your family would cope in the event that a forest fire, hurricane, or power blackout struck your community—emergency situations that many Canadian families have had to face first-hand in recent months. 

Home Safety Makeover

You’ll sleep better at night knowing that you’ve eliminated all the major safety hazards from your home. Here are the key issues to consider on a room-by-room basis.

It may not be as fun as pulling out the paint cans and going into reno mode, but a home safety makeover will help you sleep a whole lot better at night than anything you can pull off with a few paint chips (unless, of course, the current state of your home décor happens to be giving you insomnia). 

Home Hot Spots

  • Three out of every ten house fires start in the kitchen. Here are the key points to keep in mind in order to prevent a kitchen fire.
  • Keep your oven burner pans and stove top clean. Built-up grease and food particles can quickly catch fire.
  • Check the cords on small appliances such as kettles and toasters for fraying and other signs of wear.
  • Use timers when you’re cooking. It’s easy to become distracted, particularly when you’re caring for young children.
  • Never leave pots or cooking appliances like toasters unattended. If a fire erupts, you need to be able to react quickly.
  • Keep cookbooks, paper towels and children’s artwork a safe distance away from the stovetop so that they don’t fall on to a lit burner by mistake.
  • Don’t use barbecues and charcoal grills indoors unless they’re specifically designed for that purpose.


One in four fire fatalities is the result of a fire that has started in the bedroom.

  • Make sure that your kids sleep in flame-retardant sleepwear as opposed to daytime clothing, which is unlikely to have been treated with flame-retardant chemicals.
  • Don’t use “naked” light bulbs for lighting in clothes closets. They can pose a fire hazard. Instead, use light fixtures that are designed for use in closets.

Laundry room and furnace room

Five percent of fires start in the basement.

  • Never leave the clothes dryer running when you’re away from home. There’s always the chance that the dryer could malfunction and cause a fire. 
  • Have your furnace inspected annually by a qualified technician to ensure that it is functioning properly. Ditto for all fuel-burning appliances, gas appliances, water heaters, stoves, and clothes dryers.

Family room

According to Safe Kids Canada, heating sources are responsible for a significant number of house fires in Canada—3858 in 1997, the most recent year for which statistics are available. 

  • If you use a space heater in a basement family room, make sure you keep it away from furniture, curtains, and other flammable materials. According to the National Fire Protection Association in the U.S., space heaters are the leading cause of home fires during the months of December, January, and February.
  • Make sure your fireplace or woodstove meets current safety standards and that it is in good working condition.
  • Have your chimney cleaned at least once a year.
  • Ensure that your fireplace is equipped with a metal or glass screen.
  • Keep combustibles such as clothing, books, wood, and other flammable items away from your fireplace or woodstove.
  • Never leave a fireplace or woodstove unattended. Make sure that your fire is out before you go to sleep or leave the building.

Throughout the house

Fires are the leading cause of death at home for children under the age of six. The National Fire Protection Association in the U.S. estimates that 40% of children who die in house fires die in fires that were started by themselves or other young children.

  • When you’re shopping for a smoke detector, choose a model that features interconnected electrical units so that all of the smoke detectors in your home will sound simultaneously in the event of a fire.  Note: Make sure that you have a mix of battery-operated and electrically-wired smoke detectors so that you’ll be protected in the event of a power outage.
  • Smoke detectors should be installed on or close to the ceiling, where smoke will be detected first.
  • Make sure you check your smoke detectors on a monthly basis to ensure that they’re working properly (it’s as simple as pushing the button on the smoke detector and listening for the tell-tale beep) and that you change your batteries twice a year (in spring and fall when you move your clocks backwards and forward). According to the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, in 60% of cases where house fires broke out, the smoke alarms had dead batteries or no batteries at all.
  • Don’t exceed the recommended wattage for light bulbs in lamps or light fixtures. If you need more light in a particular area, add another light.
  • Don’t overload extension cords with too many appliances or use extension cords as a permanent substitute for inadequate house wiring. Call an electrician and get some additional electrical sockets added.
  • Place fire extinguishers throughout your home. Ideally, you should have fire extinguishers in the kitchen, garage, and on each level of your home. You’ll want to make sure you’ve chosen a fire extinguisher that it capable of fighting the types of fires you’re likely to encounter in a particular location in your home and that you know how to operate the fire extinguisher. Note: Fire extinguishers should only be used to fight small, contained fires. If a fire is getting out of control, don’t try to fight it on your own. Call in the professionals. 
  • Call an electrician if you suspect a possible electrical problem (e.g., you smell burning plastic, one of your receptacles feels warm to the touch, or your lights flicker or get dim).
  • Keep lighters, matches and candles out of the reach of children, particularly once they’ve learned what these items are for.
  • Make sure that your home is equipped with carbon monoxide detectors, which will let you know when carbon monoxide levels in the home reach a level that represents a health risk to occupants. Young children, pregnant women and the elderly are at particular risk.

Garage and backyard

Carbon monoxide poisoning is the leading cause of accidental poisoning deaths in North America.

  • If your garage is attached to your house, make sure that air from the garage cannot seep into the house and put you at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Never start your car in a confined space, such as a garage when the garage door is down, and ensure that your garage is properly vented.
  • Store flammable materials such as paints, paint thinners and industrial cleaners in approved containers <<what, exactly, are approved containers? – a container that has been approved for use for this purpose>>and away from ignition sources.
  • Make sure that the pipes that connect to the burners on your barbecue are clean and obstruction free.

The Great Escape

The only way to feel confident that your kids will know what to do in the event of a fire is to prepare a family escape plan and to practise that plan until it becomes second nature to everyone. Here’s our eight-step plan. 

  1. Plan your great escape. Map out an escape route that includes at least two ways of getting out of each room in case your main route is blocked by smoke or flames and agree upon a meeting spot away from the house (perhaps a neighbour’s house or a mailbox or tree down the street). 
  2. Think through all the details. Make sure your plan spells out which parent will be in charge carrying out the baby or toddler. You don’t want to waste precious time trying to sort this out while your house is on fire. Note: A baby carrier can be useful in helping to carry babies and toddlers out of the house in the event of a fire, but, according to Don LeBlanc of the Yarmouth Fire Department in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, the baby carrier should only be used if it can be strapped on in a matter of seconds.
  3. Talk about how things will work. Make it a rule that no one will go back in the house, no matter what. If a family member is missing, a firefighter should be the one to look for the missing family member.<<Add something here about making a plan for your baby or toddler; i.e., they’ll need help getting out, so when making your escape plan, decide which parent will immediately go to the baby’s room and carry him out. 
  4. Test-drive your plan. To get a realistic idea of how much help your kids will need in exiting the house in the event of a fire, do a dry run when your kids are in a deep sleep—approximately one to three hours after they’ve gone to bed. If they’re half-asleep and quite disoriented when you conduct the drill, you may find that they are difficult to rouse in the event of a real fire. Doing this drill will give you a solid indication of just how much help your kids may require in the event of an actual emergency. <<so what’s the advice here?>>
  5. Play “Beat the Clock.” Teach your kids to get out of the house immediately once the fire alarm sounds. If your kids are school-aged, have them practice making their escape with their eyes shut. You may not be able to see in the event of a real fire, so you need to know your escape route instinctively.
  6. Teach your kids what it takes to get out alive. Kids should be taught to test doors before they open them by putting their hands on the door to feel if the door is hot, and then to open doors slowly. They should also watch for signs of smoke seeping in around the edges of doors. If heat and smoke rush in when they start to open a door, they should slam the door shut and exit the room another way—perhaps via a window instead. 
  7. Show your kids how to avoid the smoke. If there’s a lot of smoke, teach your children to crawl on their hands and knees to the nearest exit. Smoke rises, so crawling will allow them to breathe in the cleaner, cooler air that tends to pool near the floor. 
  8. Post your plan. Post a copy of your plan on the refrigerator door so that your kids will have the opportunity to review it on a regular basis and possibly even remember to share your family escape with their friends. (Remember, you want visitors to your home to be equally prepared.)

TIP: Disaster preparedness experts recommend that your family emergency kit should provide you with the supplies you need to meet your family’s basic needs for a minimum of three days, whether you end up staying at home or moving to another location. Here’s what you should plan have on hand at all times. (Remember, some emergencies happen without warning. You shouldn’t count on being able to make a quick pit stop at the store to load up on the essentials at the last minute. And you will need to replenish these supplies from time to time as some of the supplies reach their expiry dates.) 

Ann Douglas is the author of numerous books about pregnancy and parenting, including The Mother of All Parenting Books.