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Tennessee State Fire Marshal states Most Home Fire Deaths Caused by Smoke, Not Flames

Tennessee State Fire MarshalNashville, TN – Home is the place people feel safest from fire, but it’s actually the place they’re at greatest risk. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), approximately 80 percent of all U.S. fire deaths occur in the home. Most home fire fatalities, however, are not caused by burns, but by smoke inhalation.

To help prevent these tragedies, the Tennessee State Fire Marshal’s Office (SFMO) is reminding residents that the early detection capabilities of a working smoke alarm can mean the difference between life and death.

Most home fire fatalities are caused by smoke inhalation. A working smoke alarm can be a live safer.
Most home fire fatalities are caused by smoke inhalation. A working smoke alarm can be a live safer.

“Smoke is the real danger when it comes to a home fire,” said Tennessee Department of Commerce & Insurance Commissioner and State Fire Marshal Julie Mix McPeak. “It doesn’t take long for a person to be overcome by the toxic gases produced by a fire’s smoke. Working smoke alarms save lives by identifying the presence of smoke early, cutting the risk of dying in a home fire in half. We urge Tennesseans to install these life-saving devices on every level of their homes.”

According to NFPA, smoke is usually the first element of a fire to affect anyone nearby because of its toxicity, temperature, and prevalence. Often smoke incapacitates so quickly that people can’t make it to an otherwise accessible exit.

The synthetic materials commonplace in today’s homes produce especially dangerous substances. As a fire grows inside a building, it will often consume most of the available oxygen, slowing the burning process.

This “incomplete combustion” results in toxic gases: hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, and ammonia, among others. These gases have various effects on the body and can immediately affect a person’s ability to escape a house fire.

Smoke is made of components that can each be lethal in its own way:

  • Particles: Unburned, partially burned, and completely burned substances can be so small they penetrate the respiratory system’s protective filters, and lodge in the lungs. Some are actively toxic; others are irritating to the eyes and digestive system.
  • Vapors: Foglike droplets of liquid can poison if inhaled or absorbed through the skin.
  • Toxic gases: The most common, carbon monoxide (CO), can be deadly, even in small quantities, as it replaced oxygen in the bloodstream. Hydrogen cyanide results from the burning of plastics, such as PVC pipe, and interferes with cellular respiration. Phosgene is formed when household products, such as vinyl materials, are burned. At low levels, phosgene can cause itchy eyes and a sore throat; at higher levels it can cause pulmonary edema and death.                                              

In addition to producing smoke, fire can incapacitate or kill by reducing oxygen levels, either by consuming the oxygen, or by displacing it with other gases. Heat is also a respiratory hazard, as superheated gases burn the respiratory tract. When the air is hot enough, one breath can kill.

The Tennessee State Fire Marshal’s Office urges Tennesseans to implement the following guidelines to help protect themselves and their loved ones from the devastating effects of fire and smoke:

  • Install smoke alarms in every sleeping room, outside each separate sleeping area, and on every level of the home, including the basement. Larger homes may require additional smoke alarms to provide a minimum level of protection.
  • Replace smoke alarms that are 10 years old or older as they may not function properly.
  • Install a carbon monoxide alarm if your household contains a fuel-burning appliance, fireplace, or has an attached garage.
  • Make a home fire escape plan with two ways out of every room if possible and a designated outside meeting place. Practice the plan both during the day and the night, being sure to include every member of your household.
  • Sleep with bedroom doors closed if possible. A closed door can prevent the spread of smoke and flames.
  • If the smoke alarm sounds or fire is discovered in your home, get out fast. Close doors behind you as you leave to help slow the spread of the fire.
  • If you have to escape through smoke, get low and go under the smoke to your way out.
  • Once you are out, stay out. Call the fire department from your safe outside meeting place.
  • If people or pets are trapped, notify the fire department and let them handle the rescue efforts. Never go back inside for people, pets, or things.

For more home fire safety information or to download a free copy of the 2018 Tennessee State Fire Marshal’s Office calendar, visit tn.gov/fire.


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