Home electrical fires kill 310 people and injure more than 1,100 each year, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. This includes both electrical system failures and a large number of homeowner errors, including overloading circuits or extension cords.
Many fires can be avoided with proper safety precautions. In other cases, safety equipment and proper planning can keep malfunctions from turning into deadly tragedies. Here are five deadly, high-profile electrical fires, and the lessons that can be learned from each incident.
1. Make an Evacuation Plan
In 2009, an electrical fault in an old portable television started a fire in a London apartment building that killed six people. The fire started on the ninth floor, but all the victims lived on the 11th floor. More than 30 other people were rescued.
Surviving residents complained the apartment building was designed like a complicated maze. A difficult layout is all the more reason to study, plan and practice an evacuation route from any home.
Inspect all possible exits and escape routes from the home, and plan two ways out of each room. Make sure all doors and windows can be easily opened, and that security bars have internal emergency-release devices. Also choose a safe outside meeting place, and make sure somebody is assigned to help any small children, disabled people or older adults in the home.
If smoke or fire in the stairwells could prevent evacuation from a high-rise apartment, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends learning how to “seal yourself in for safety” as part of the fire escape plan. Close all doors between your family and the fire, and cover door gaps and air vents with duct tape or towels. If possible, open windows for fresh air, and wave a flashlight or bright-colored cloth at the window to alert the fire department.
2. Consider Sprinklers
In 1980, an electrical fire at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas killed 87 people and injured 700 others. The fire quickly spread to the wallpaper, plastic mirrors and other flammable materials on all 26 stories in the building. Most of the deaths were attributed to toxic smoke and fumes.
An automatic sprinkler system in the casino area of the building could have kept the electric fire from spreading and becoming a tragedy. Look for high-rise apartment buildings that have sprinkler systems. For other homes, consider installing sprinklers, which can extinguish a fire before the fire department has time to reach the home.
The NFPA reports that sprinklers can reduce the risk of death in a home fire by 80 percent, and reduce property loss by 71 percent per fire.
3. Install and Maintain Smoke Alarms
A department store fire in Belgium in 1967 killed 322 people. The fire occurred on the opening day of an American fashion exhibit, and was widely attributed to deliberate anti-American arson. However, evidence suggests that it was caused by an electric fault.
However, the tragedy should be a lesson in basic fire safety. The 2,500 shoppers in the store were never alerted by smoke alarms, and there were few fire extinguishers available.
The NFPA reports that no working smoke alarms were operating in 40 percent of home fires between 2003 and 2006, and these blazes accounted for nearly two thirds of home fire deaths during the same period.
Install interconnected smoke alarms in every bedroom, outside each separate sleeping area and on every level of the home. Use both ionization smoke alarms and photoelectric smoke alarms. Also consider alarms with a recordable voice announcement for homes with children. Test alarms monthly, and replace batteries at least annually.
4. Be Fire-Safe at Christmas
In 2007, an electrical fire ignited a Christmas tree and other items, starting a fire that killed four people in Pennsylvania. Such tragedies are sadly common. The NFPA reports fatalities in 11 percent of home fires that start with the Christmas tree. There are fatalities in less than 2 percent of all other home fires.
Help avoid holiday tragedies by choosing a fresh tree and keeping it thoroughly watered daily. Also avoid overloading extension cords with more than three strands of lights. Use only UL-listed indoor-rated lights, and inspect all lights for frayed or exposed wiring. Always unplug lights before going to bed or leaving the house.
5. Replace Frayed Electric Cords
In 2009, an electric cord under a sofa caught fire in a Staten Island home. The blaze killed two men in the home, engulfed five other houses and involved nearly 300 firefighters.
All worn, old or damaged electrical cords should be replaced immediately. Also avoid running extension cords across doorways or under carpets, where they could easily become damaged.
Many electrical fire deaths can be avoided with the proper precautions. Visit the NFPA site for more fire safety information, and only employ licensed electrcians who conform to electrical safety codes.