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Friday, February 1, 2019

Where There’s Smoke

By Catherine Powell

Image courtesy flickr
For most of us, the epitome of the American Dream is owning our own home.  Being one of the biggest investments most of us will ever make, we put our hearts and souls into buying and beautifying our homes.  It’s also why we lavish so much time and money into protecting it.  While most Floridians lose sleep worrying if the next named storm is going to wreak havoc on our home, or how to keep burglars at bay, what most fail to realize is that there lurks a much bigger concern that not only has the power to damage or destroy our home, but it can harm or claim those tucked safely inside it.

Smoke damage is much more than a line item on a claim.

One of the line items on a fire claim form is smoke damage.  Usually it is filled in after a kitchen fire or electrical fire has occurred.  Or perhaps a home was hit by lightning which can easily set the roof ablaze.  While smoke and fire damage can easily be rectified from a structural perspective, what’s harder to repair is the physical and emotional damage that a house fire can have on its occupants.

1.      When was the last time you checked your smoke alarms? – While most homes are equipped with smoke alarms, since they’re located on the ceiling, most people don’t give them a second thought.  This can come back to haunt them since most smoke detectors are battery powered.  If the battery dies, so to does this life saving device.  If it’s been months since you’ve checked your smoke detector, there’s no time like the present.

2.      The longer the burn, the bigger the problem. – The best time to deal with smoke is when a fire is still smoldering.  That being said, the longer something smolders, the more dangerous it becomes.  That’s because anytime something in your home begins to combust, it can also emit toxic gases that can quickly overcome those in the structure.  While carbon monoxide is an obvious risk, depending on the kind of material that is alight, other toxins such as dioxin, furans and chlorine can also be released.  Inhaling any of these toxic gases can cause lung and neurological diseases.  In high enough concentrations, they can incapacitate and kill.

Image courtesy flickr
3.      When smoke gets in your eyes. – Another hazard of smoky fires aside from smoke inhalation is reduced visibility.  Smoke is lighter than air and tends to work its way from the ceiling down.  This means an adult who hears a smoke alarm blaring in the bedroom, can find themselves in a smoke-filled hallway that can quickly turn into a deathtrap.  Not only can smoke overcome any human being extremely in a hurry, once inside a smoky corridor or room, it doesn’t take long before adults or children become disoriented.  Firefighters know all too well that sometimes when they are called to fight a house fire, they will find the occupants expired a few feet from a door or window.

4.      What to do in case of smoke or fire. – Should a smoke detector go off in your home, the obvious reaction is to rush out of the room you are in and head in the direction of the alarm.  This could be a deadly mistake.  If you rush into a potentially toxic environment, you could be overcome by smoke or toxic gas before you even reach the source of the smoke.  The first thing you should do if you hear the blare of the smoke alarm is to walk over to the door and look down.  If you see smoke wafting through the door cracks or licking up from underneath do NOT open it.  Many times a slow burning fire will quickly spark into a raging inferno the moment it receives fresh oxygen.  Opening that bedroom door could cause smoke to turn to fire or a deadly flashover that could set you ablaze in an instant.  If you don’t see smoke, use the back of your hand to feel if the door is warm.  If it is, call 911 and exit your home via the window.  If the door doesn’t feel warm, how about the doorknob?  Metal conducts heat extremely well, so don’t reach for the knob with your hand or you could burn yourself severely.  Again, use the back of your hand to test for heat.  If there’s no heat and no smoke, it’s okay to open the door a crack to take a sniff.  Next stick your head outside the door to see if you can detect smoke.  Only if the space on the other side of the door is clear is it safe to venture further.

5.      What do you do if you wake to find smoke in your bedroom or if you need to pass through a smoky room or corridor to exit the structure? – If you have no other choice than to enter a smoke-filled room, if time permits, wet a towel or rag and put it over your mouth and nose.  Then get as low as you can go.  In a smoke-filled room, there is more air and less smoke next to the floor.  This will make it easier to breathe and see.  Sometimes it’s possible to crawl on your hands and knees to an exit.  At other times, you may need to belly crawl to escape to a smoke-free area.  If the smoke has progressed to the point where you’re as low as you can go, do NOT attempt to fight the fire.  Your life is worth more than your home.

Image courtesy USAF
6.      Want to save your family?  Create a fire escape plan. – Many Floridians have a storm escape plan that they teach their family.  But few of us take the time to create and practice a fire escape plan.  Especially if your doors are equipped with deadbolts that require a key to unlock or your windows have burglar bars, you need to show your family what they need to do in case of fire.  However, even in homes that are not built like a bunker, you need to show your family (especially children) what to do if they hear the smoke alarm blaring.  Do your kids know never to rush into the hallway if they hear the fire alarm go off?  Have you ever shown them how to open their bedroom window and remove the screen to affect an escape?  Does everyone in your home know where the fire extinguisher is and how to use it?   

7.      Doggie downer – Pets can perish as quickly as people when smoke or fire crops up.  Even worse, children tend to try to rescue pets (or even dolls) when smoke or fire occur.  The best thing you can do is to get the people out of any situation involving smoke or fire and then call for your dog or cat from outside the structure.  If your pets don’t exit with you, wait for the firefighters who come equipped with breathing apparatus to rescue your pets.  Reentering a hazard zone is never a good idea.

Catherine Powell is the owner of A Plus All Florida, Insurance in Orange Park, Florida.  To find out more about saving money on your auto insurance, check out her website at


  1. Teaching your family about the ins and outs of fire safety is an education that will last a lifetime.

  2. Last Christmas, a house in my neighborhood went up in smoke (and fire) and the owners literally walked away from the house, (the mortgage) and lost many of their possessions. They were under insured and paid a terrible price. Don't let this happen to you.


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