The statistics tell the story: Cooking fires are serious business. Cooking equipment fires are the leading cause of U.S. home fires and fire injuries, and the third leading cause of fire deaths. As a result, fire departments must be even more prepared during the holidays–when home cooking events and family gatherings sharply increase–to respond to kitchen/cooking fires, and they must remain diligent about informing their community when it comes to safe cooking practices.
Project STOP One department that’s taking an extra step toward cooking safety is the Sandy Springs (Ga.) Fire Department (SSFD). Their research into the kitchen/cooking fires that occurred in their community revealed that many took place in rental apartments. In response to this issue, the SSFD launched Project STOP to educate community members about cooking fire prevention. Specifically, the project educates at-risk seniors and young children on how to reduce the chances of experiencing a cooking fire and the necessary actions to take during a fire. The course was developed from a teaching outline developed by FEMA and NFPA.
The project also involved the implementation of new technology in the forms of an automatic fire extinguisher, which attaches magnetically under the vent hood over a stovetop, and the “Safe-T-Element,” a technology that prevents common combustibles from igniting and burning on the stovetop.
FOTS Calls But even if you don’t have access to latest fire suppression or prevention technology, there are many things your department can do to help stop the spread of kitchen/cooking fires. One key factor encountered during many kitchen/cooking fires: strange odors. For example, fire on the stove, or FOTS fires, can generate smoke odors that often cause people to call the fire department.
When responding to strange odor calls, consider the following:
Seek out strange odors by first asking the occupants if they’ve recently used any appliances. Then try to isolate the odor to the room or area that it seems strongest.
Enlist the aid of your local police department if needed, as residents may not readily open their door to you.
Don’t stop searching until you’ve found the source of the odor. More than one fire department has left the scene of a strange odor call, only to return hours later to a working structure fire–some with deadly consequences.
Problems with debris caught under stove burners, material stuck in toasters or the infamous scorched-popcorn-in-the-microwave scenario are good sources of FOTS smoke odors. Look for traces of scorched popcorn in the microwave or in the trash in office or dormitory kitchen areas. If you find popcorn in the trash, the offender probably discarded the burned remnants of their snack, but an innocent second party entered the area, smelled the smoke and called emergency services. A little detective work on your part can quickly isolate this problem.
Check to see if the resident has a self-cleaning oven. Many consumers don’t realize these ovens clean by burning off residue. As a result, when they see or smell smoke (or flames) and determine that the oven is hot (it’s supposed to be), they call the fire department. Search tip: In most cases, these ovens have a safety feature that keeps the door locked during the cleaning cycle, so you’ll be unable to open the oven door. Check for any fire extension to surrounding cabinets or areas, paying close attention to napkins or paper towels that may be stored in cabinets connected to or near hot surfaces, and advise the homeowner to confer with the dealer/manufacturer.
Keep in mind that other appliances in the kitchen can create strange odors, not just the oven or stove. Sometimes, plastic utensils or wooden material may fall to the bottom of a dishwasher, coming in contact with the machine’s heating element.
Use available resources such as a fresh, unclogged nose, heat guns, TICs and toolboxes.
Something else to consider: A new product was recently invented by one Utah firefighter that may revolutionize the way in which we protect people from kitchen/cooking fires. His invention–called the Fire Avert–is a simple device that can connect to any electric stove. You simply plug the power cord of the stove into the Fire Avert, and then plug the device into the wall outlet. When triggered by the sound of a smoke detector, it shuts off power to the stove. Firefighter/inventor Peter Thorpe and his business partner, Michael Sanders and Rhett Weller, are currently awaiting approval of a prototype and expect to begin production soon.
A Final Note The holiday season is upon us, and with it comes the increased risk for kitchen/cooking fires. But with the right amount of community outreach and education, investigation tactics and technology (if you’ve got it), firefighters can drastically reduce the risks to their community members.