Steps Should Be Taken to Limit
By Mike Kirby
Consider this: the alarm came into the station at 2:05 via a Life Alert button that the owner had triggered; a policeman responded and called in at 2:11 that fire was showing in the kitchen and there was heavy smoke; the first engines arrived at the scene at 2:16, only 11 minutes after the first call.
By the time the fire was finally put down, the loss was several hundred thousand dollars. Thirty-two firefighters were involved, two were injured, and the owner of the house, Frank Labato was in the hospital in critical condition, fighting for his life. It was a hell of a fast-moving fire.
Modern houses are a lot safer, what with the short pieces of 2 x 4s that modern builders splice in between the 2 x 4s on each floor, and so-called platform construction, where voids in the wall end at each ceiling.
I didn’t really understand all this until I was running an electrical line from my attic to the cellar. I cut a hole in the outer wall of the house to bring the line into the house from the weatherized box, and then fished a line down between the studs. I thought I would run into insulation and have some trouble with it, but the route from attic to cellar was wide open; a very effective chimney should a fire ever start in the cellar or first floor. Fires explode when you have a strong draft.
Say you were Frank Labato. You’re pushing your walker along, getting ready to go to bed. You don’t see it, but the walker snags on a wire, and pulls it half-way out of the wall socket. A small current starts flowing from the "live" conductor to the neutral or earth wire, or, to the grounded metal case. There is an arc. The current will initially be too small to trip a circuit breaker, but because the contact area is also very small (a few strands of wire), the heat can reach sufficiently high temperatures to melt or vaporize metals such as copper, brass or sheet metal. You’ll have a fire starting behind a wall, where you can’t see it or smell it. The wood back there is dry as a bone. And you have a draft feeding the fire, the same as in a wood stove when you pull the damper out.
Other words of wisdom from the State Fire Marshal. Always keep three essential items by your bedside: your eyeglasses, a telephone, and a whistle. Beware of using power strips. They look safe because they have switches on them, but it is easy to overload them, especially when you are piggybacking them. Older people living in old houses tend to concentrate our operations in one or two rooms, where once we ranged all over. So all of our electrical draw is in a smaller area, with more extension cords. When I started as home health aide many years ago, our nurses did home safety inspections first thing: they were eliminated long ago as budget cuts hit.
Another thing to note, if you have older Federal-Pacific electrical breakers, they pose a real safety hazard. They do not trip.
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