(written for a Fairfax fire safety feature – 2009)
NSW Fire Brigades Commissioner Greg Mullins has learnt to dread winter since he began fighting fires 37 years ago. “Many more people lose their lives in house fires in winter – more than in bushfires,” Mr Mullins says.
“What we consistently find is that members of the public have no idea how quickly fires happen – if fire doesn’t overwhelm you, the smoke will.”
During the three months of winter last year, there was a total of 1542 reported house fires in NSW, 10 deaths and 217 injuries. “That’s about 15 fires a day,” Mr Mullins says. “People need to be very vigilant during winter, particularly in the kitchen when they’re cooking more – 44 per cent of fires start there.”
He said basic precautions include having enough smoke alarms, devising an evacuation plan, meeting outside and ringing 000.
Electrical appliances, open fires, lint filters in clothes driers, using more than one double adapter and knocking over or covering heaters are other dangers.
Mr Mullins says he follows the safety suggestions – as do most fireys – because of the awful fatalities he’s encountered.
“It’s so frustrating to see someone who hasn’t made it out and they’re not even burnt – they were overcome by smoke – when a $10 smoke alarm could have saved them.
“There’s a human side to all fireys. We’re all normal men and women. I can rattle off details of every fatality I’ve seen. Afterwards I go home and hug my kids.”
There are other simple mistakes that cost lives. “Nine people out of 100 remove the batteries from their smoke alarms because they’re tired of false alarms or wanted to use the batteries for another appliance and forgot to replace them.” He shakes his head.
He says anyone who sleeps with the door closed should have a smoke alarm in the bedroom, because “if smoke doesn’t reach an alarm it won’t set the alarm off”. “There have been fatalities after people kicked a blanket onto a heater during the night.”
He advises if you have a fire in a mattress or sofa, call the fire station because these items often smoulder and flare up again hours later. “It’s a free call. Fireys are waiting to help and protect people. There’s no point in thinking you’ve put out a fire and then wake up at 3am and find you’re not going to make it.”
He encourages every household to overcome complacency and follow the precautions. “It’s better to be safe than sorry. I make my family do a fire drill and I vacuum the smoke alarm vents once a month. I tell them off if someone has let lint build up in the drier. My family tease me and say: “Give it a rest!”, but they know it’s important.”
Mr Mullins even had a fire in his own home at 3am during a storm when rain got into an electrical junction box under the house and set fire to timber under the floor.
“The smoke alarms went off. The rain mostly contained the fire. I put it out,” Mr Mullins says. ““People think it won’t happen to them. Complacency is the biggest enemy. Don’t think you’re safe – it can happen to anyone.”
He says it’s best to have a carbon dioxide fire extinguisher handy which can be used on electrical fires as well and you won’t get electrocuted. “You don’t have time during a fire to select which extinguisher to use.”
He says sometimes people are reluctant to dial 000 and fireys are abused by a crowd for taking too long to get there. “I ask, ‘Who phoned?’ They all think someone else did. It’s better for us to get more calls, so ring. We can build a better picture of what’s happening while we’re on our way.”
If you’re concerned about living in a high-rise city apartment block or security building which has only one exit, Mr Mullins says well equipped modern fire trucks mean firefighters can “get in anywhere”. “We can put up a ladder or use this,” Mr Mullins says grinning, lifting his boot. “It’s called a master key.”