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Most house fires start in the kitchen - in or on stoves, ovens, toasters and microwave ovens.
Other major causes of house fires are:
- home heating - eg flammable items too close to heaters or open fires without fire guards
- smoking in bed
- faulty appliances or wiring
- clothes dryers
- electric blankets
A house fire can reach extreme temperatures in just a few minutes and a house can be totally consumed by fire in less than five minutes.
The thick black smoke from a house fire makes it difficult to see and to breathe, and contains poisonous gases that can kill you. Many fires occur at night when people are asleep and they suffocate without ever waking.
Prepare for a house fire
Some simple precautions can help you in the event of a fire.
Install smoke alarms:
- Test them monthly.
- Clean with a soft brush attachment on a vacuum cleaner, at least six monthly.
- Change replaceable batteries annually.
- Replace the entire smoke alarm every ten years.
- In houses built since 1 May 2014 multiple smoke alarms must be interconnected. The MFS recommends that multiple smoke alarms be interconnected in all homes.
Keep a suitable fire extinguisher and fire blanket in your kitchen.
- Store them away from the stove, near an exit.
- Make sure they are easily accessible.
- Learn how to use them before you need them.
Leave keys in locked doors and windows whenever someone is at home.
Ensure that electrical appliances are in good working order, and turn off non-essential items before going to bed.
Make sure your house number is clearly visible from the street so emergency services can find it.
Make a plan
Having a plan can help save your life in a house fire. Spend a few minutes with all household members talking about how you would respond if a fire started. You should:
- identify more than one way out of each room (including windows) and ensure that all family members know how to open doors and windows
- consider family members who may be at risk due to physical or mental health issues
- make plans for keeping your pets safe
- decide on a safe place outside the front of the house to meet - eg near the letterbox
- practise and review your plan every six months.
If you live in a multi-level house or an apartment, your home fire escape plan will need to include escape routes from upper levels.
The MFS has fact sheets on fire safety in the home.
Preventing house fires
Following basic safety advice and carrying out regular safety checks on your electricity and gas appliances can keep your home and the people in it safe from a house fire.
Electrical and gas safety
Always use a licensed electrician or gas fitter to carry out work around the house. They must issue a certificate of compliance.
Fully unwind extension cords so they don't overheat. Check that the plug and cord aren't damaged.
Never plug one power board into another, or use double or triple adaptors in power boards. Always ensure powerboards have an overload cut-out switch.
Don't buy an electrical or gas appliance online unless you are sure it complies with Australian Standards.
Never leave heaters unattended. Keep flammable materials at least two metres away from a heater. Never plug heaters into power boards, double adaptors or extension cords with other appliances.
Always follow manufacture's instructions for storing electric blankets when not used. When using the electric blanket again, lay it flat and check for hot spots. A hot spot could indicate a fault and fire risk.
Clean your clothes dryer lint filter before every load to reduce the risk of overheating. Follow the manufacturer's guidelines and only place suitable materials in the dryer.
Have your roof insulation and downlights checked by a licensed electrician. Insulation installed incorrectly around electrical wiring and downlights can cause fires.
Have your appliances serviced regularly or straight away if you think they are faulty.
Fire safety around open flames
Never leave open flames unattended:
- Put out candles and oil burners before leaving a room.
- Don't leave the stove on when you're out of the kitchen.
- Keep a fire screen around an open fire or combustion heater. Put the fire out before leaving the house or going to bed.
Don't smoke in bed as it's easy to fall asleep and set the bedding alight.
Keep matches and lighters up high, out of sight and reach of children.
Keep flammable materials at least two metres away from an open fire or combustion heater. Don't hang clothes or towels to dry on, or in front of, heaters.
If you need light, use a torch.
Firefighters respond on average to three household fires caused by flame candles every month. Substitute real candles with the flame-less variety including battery-operated imitation candles, plugin candle warmers, scented sticks or reed diffusers.
If you choose to use flame candles, here are some safety tips:
- use flame candles only with constant adult supervision
- keep the area around candles clear of all items, especially clothing, bedding, books, tablecloths and curtains
- don't place lit candles in windows where there are blinds or curtains
- place candles in non-combustible sturdy holders, on a secure piece of heat-resistant furniture
- extinguish all candles when leaving a room or going to sleep
- keep lit candles away from flammable liquids.
Fire safety and home security
To ensure your home is both secure and fire safe:
- install locks that can be opened from the inside without keys
- leave keys in locked doors and windows whenever someone is at home
- install security grilles that feature keyless options on the inside
- check that any window grille bars/screens open outwards from the inside easily using a quick release mechanism
- if grilles are key locked, the key should be kept in the lock.
During a house fire
Make sure everyone knows how to get out if there is a fire. You should:
- get out quickly
- assist or alert others in danger if it is safe to do so
- keep down low if there is smoke (the cleanest air is close to the floor)
- feel the door with the back of your hand before opening it:
- if it's hot, the fire is close behind and you'll need to find another exit
- if the door isn't hot then open it slowly
- if you can, shut doors behind you as you leave
- shout warnings to other occupants as you leave
- meet at your designated meeting place outside the front of the house
- dial Triple Zero (000) once outside and ask for Fire
- never go back into the house - if someone is still inside, try to reach them from an external window
- instruct one person to wait near the road to meet the fire service. The rest of the household should shelter with neighbours or friends.
If you're in an upper storey:
- don't use lifts
- use any escape routes available.
If you can't escape:
- retreat into a room with a window exit, away from the fire
- close the door and seal the opening around the door and any vents with bedding or clothing
- call Triple Zero (000)
- stay by the window and attract the attention of firefighters.
Stop, cover, drop and roll
If your clothes catch fire:
- stand still - running will fan the flames
- cover your face with your hands - to protect your face and airways
- drop to the ground
- roll back and forth on the ground to put out the fire.
To help a person with burning clothing, follow the Stop, Cover, Drop and Roll procedure and help them roll back and forth. If a fire blanket or a woollen blanket is close by, use it to smother the flames.
First aid for burns
If someone gets burnt:
- immediately remove any clothing and jewellery that isn't stuck to the skin
- only use cool running water on the burn; do this for at least 20 minutes
- don't use oils, butter, ice, ointments or any other concoctions
- cover the burn with a clean cloth or clean plastic cling wrap (don't use cling wrap on the face).
Get medical help if:
- the skin is broken or the burn is larger than the size of a 20 cent piece
- the burn is to the face, hands, feet or genital area.
Putting out a fire
There are different ways to put out different fires. You can use water on wood, paper, fabric or rubbish fires but never use water on a fat, oil or electrical fire.
Different types of fire extinguishers are needed for different fires but a dry chemical powder extinguisher and a fire blanket are suited to most fires in the home.
Only use a fire extinguisher if:
- the extinguisher is suitable for the type of fire involved
- you know how to use it
- it is a small fire that you can extinguish quickly
- you are not putting your safety at risk.
If you are unable to put out the fire:
- close the door to contain the fire to that room
- evacuate everyone from the house
- call triple zero (000) from outside the house even if you think the fire is out - fire services will attend and check for you.
Oil or fat cooking fires
If oil or fat catches alight in a pan:
- cover burning pans with a fire blanket, lid, or wooden chopping board, or use a dry powder fire extinguisher (type BE) to smother the flame
- turn off the heat source
- never use water as burning fat will explode and cause the fire to spread
- don't move the pan until it has completely cooled.
For further information refer to the cooking section on the MFS website.
After a house fire
It's dangerous to enter a house that has been affected by fire. Only enter after clearance from a senior fire or police officer in charge.
The MFS has information sheets including 'After the fire' for people who have experienced a house fire.
A fire blanket can be used to smother a small fire or wrap around a person whose clothing is alight. Replace fire blankets once they have been used.
Put out a cooking fire
- Remove the fire blanket from its envelope.
- Grasp the tabs, one tab in each hand near the blanket, and rotate your hands inwards.
- Hold your arms out toward the fire.
- Move slowly and carefully towards the fire. The blanket will protect you from the heat and flame. Don't look over the top of the blanket at the fire.
- Let the bottom of the fire blanket touch the side of the fire. Slowly and carefully lower the blanket over the top of the fire. Don't attempt to throw the blanket over the fire.
- Place a saucepan lid, a metal tray or other flat solid object on top of the fire blanket.
- Turn off the heat source.
- Dial Triple Zero (000) and ask for fire. They will check for fire spread - eg through the exhaust fan or range hood, and assist in removing smoke from the house.
- Leave the fire blanket and solid object in place for at least an hour before you attempt to move them.
Put out a clothing fire
To put out a clothing fire, wrap the blanket around the flames and person. Help them to:
- stop moving
- cover their face
- drop to the ground
- roll until the fire is out
- seek medical assistance.
Buying a fire blanket
When choosing a fire blanket, make sure it complies with Australian Standards - AS/NZS 3504:2006 Fire blankets. It must measure no less than 1 metre by 1 metre.
Storing a fire blanket
A fire blanket should be easy to reach. A good place is in the kitchen, where small cooking fires may occur. Don't place a fire blanket near the stove as a stove top fire might stop you from getting to it. Instead, place the fire blanket near the doorway to the kitchen.
Fire extinguishers can be used to put out small fires in the home, garage or garden shed.
Only use a fire extinguisher if:
- the extinguisher is suitable for the type of fire involved
- the fire is small and can be extinguished quickly
- you are not putting your safety or other's safety at risk.
Using a fire extinguisher
‘PASS’ is an easy way to remember how to use a fire extinguisher:
- Pull the pin at the top of the extinguisher.
- Aim the extinguisher nozzle at the base of the fire.
- Squeeze the trigger while holding the extinguisher upright.
- Sweep the nozzle from side to side, covering the base of the fire.
Types of fire extinguishers
Fire extinguishers have a colour band or may be full coloured to indicate their contents:
- red - water (no band)
- blue - foam
- white - dry chemical powder
- black - carbon dioxide
- beige - wet chemical.
Yellow fire extinguishers (old BCF/halon extinguishers) are illegal to own or use as they contain emissions that affect the ozone layer. Hand these extinguishers in at your nearest fire station.
Buying a fire extinguisher
A dry chemical powder fire extinguisher is suitable for fires involving cooking oils and fats as well as electrical fires.When choosing a fire extinguisher make sure it complies with Australian Standards - AS/NZS 1841.1:2007 Portable fire extinguishers - general requirements.
Storing a fire extinguisher
Store fire extinguishers so they are easy to get to but away from areas likely to catch fire. In the kitchen, away from the stove is a good place.
Fire extinguisher maintenance
Shake the fire extinguisher occasionally to prevent the powder from settling.
Regularly check and replace the extinguisher if:
- there is any visible damage
- the pressure gauge isn't in the green zone.
For further information refer to the fire extinguishers brochure on the MFS website.
Only working smoke alarms can provide critical early warning and time to escape a house fire. When you are asleep, you lose your sense of smell. A smoke alarm will alert you if there is smoke from a fire.
If you're in a house fire, you're four times more likely to die if you don't have working smoke alarms.
Smoke alarm requirements
The type of smoke alarm required depends on when you purchased your home or the age of your home.
All homes or residential properties built on or after 1 January 1995 require a 240 volt, mains-powered smoke alarm.
All homes or residential rental properties purchased:
- on or after 1 February 1998 require either a 240 volt, mains-powered smoke alarm or a battery-powered 10-year life, non-replaceable, non-removable smoke alarm
- before 1 February 1998 and not included in the above criteria, must be equipped with at least one 9 volt battery-powered smoke level on each level.
In homes built since 1 May 2014, multiple smoke alarms must be interconnected.
In existing buildings (ie those approved before 1 May 2014) any extension or addition (approved from 1 May 2014) which requires more than one smoke alarm must have those alarms interconnected however there is not a requirement to interconnect to alarms in the existing building.
Smoke alarms in subsequent extensions will be required to interconnect to any alarms in extensions approved after 1 May 2014.
The MFS strongly recommends that smoke alarms be interconnected in all homes, regardless of when the home was built, especially if you sleep with the door closed.
Interconnected alarms sound simultaneously when one of them senses smoke.
Smoke alarms for the hearing impaired
Special smoke alarms are available for the hearing impaired. These should feature a flashing strobe light and a vibrating pad that can be placed under a pillow to activate when the alarm sounds.
Smoke alarms for the hearing impaired can link with standard smoke alarms to alert all household members, regardless of hearing levels. When one alarm senses smoke, all will activate.
Other models are portable units that can be taken from one location to another.
When choosing a smoke alarm, make sure it:
- complies with the Australian Standard - AS 3786-2014 Smoke alarms
- has the Standards Australia mark or is Scientific Services Laboratory (SSL) certified.
View a list of compliant smoke alarms on the CSIRO website.
Installing smoke alarms
The layout of your home will influence where you install smoke alarms. Every dwelling must be assessed individually to ensure that occupants of every bedroom in the dwelling will receive an audible warning so they may safely evacuate.
Smoke alarms should be located in escape routes from bedrooms:
- if there's a passageway, install the alarm between the living area and the first bedroom
- if bedrooms are accessed directly from the living area, install smoke alarms outside each bedroom, 900 mm from doorways.
If the household sleep with bedroom doors closed, consider installing additional smoke alarms in each room and interconnect them with the smoke alarms in the rest of the house.
In addition to the requirements for bedrooms, smoke alarms should be located near the stairs on each level in multi-level homes.
To reduce the likelihood of nuisance alarms, seek professional advice before installing smoke alarms in bathrooms, kitchens and laundries.
Smoke alarm and battery replacement
Change the batteries in your smoke alarms every year - this includes replaceable back-up batteries used in mains powered smoke alarms.
The best time to change your replaceable batteries is at the end of daylight saving, before the winter season.
Don't wait until the smoke alarm sounds its low battery warning.
Smoke alarm testing
Make sure you test your smoke alarms every month.
- Press the test button - use a broom if you can't reach.
- Hold down the button until you hear the loud 'beep beep beep' alert tone, then release.
- If the alarm stays on, press the test button again to turn the alarm off.
Smoke alarm maintenance
At least every six months, clean the outside of your smoke alarm to remove any build-up of dust and cobwebs using the soft brush attachment of a vacuum cleaner.
The MFS doesn't recommend the use of any spray near the smoke alarm as this could compromise the sensor inside.
Never paint over or cover your smoke alarm.
Smoke alarm life-span
All smoke alarms, including those connected to mains electricity should be replaced every 10 years.