Household Clutter: Contributing Factor in Senior Fire Deaths

Household clutter contributes to senior fire deathsEarlier this month, for the 4th time in recent memory, a Westchester County Fire Chief has named household clutter as a contributing factor to homeowner fire death.  Wrote about this previously, but the latest tragedy in Scarsdale points to revisiting this.

In our HGTV-ized world, household clutter is a benign annoyance, the result of living a busy life. Unattractive, we’ll get around to dealing with it.

But clutter can be deadly.  Fires can start quickly, and for many reasons.  Excess household clutter is an accelerant.  It amps up smoke production and adds toxicity.

As extra fuel, household clutter prolongs the life of a fire.  Further, victims are disoriented and trapped, rescue is impeded or delayed.  

Fire can also happen to anyone, but lets’s address these victims’ demographics.  All were vulnerable older adults: late 70s+, sole occupants of the house, and most with health issues.

Anyone who’s ever observed, or supported an older citizen’s wish to age in place can attest to the challenges. As a Stager, it’s part of the job; as a daughter/granddaughter/daughter-in-law I’ve lived through it myself.

YES! The daily mundane stuff can be a full time job by itself. If you’re more friend or neighbor of course you don’t want to intrude or judge. But seeing something and saying something to a family member or local fire official could be a matter of life and death

Here are some small things that can make a big difference.  

  • Smoke detectors-should be less than 5 years old, and with new batteries. Maybe $30 total each
  • Keep paper in check. Donate books, recycle newspapers. Cull personal papers to pull out what’s truly valuable/necessary, shred the rest.
  • Reduce extra/unnecessary furniture. Walkways need to be clear. Donating i.e. putting it in the hands of someone else who needs it, will appreciate/use it takes the sting out.
  • Look for unsafe practices: Over-loaded outlets or power strips, electric/extension cords running under carpets-or anywhere as a tripping hazard.
  • How do they heat?  Has the boiler and chimney been maintained? Curtains away from the stove/heating elements?  Do they use space heaters, or think it’s ok to use the oven in a pinch to control costs?  Being a backup contact for their oil or electric company billing dept can head off unsafe practices.
  • Safely dispose of chemicals/paints/other potions in the basement/garage that are waaay past useful
  • Any concerns that might cause them to make really bad choices?  Security concerns cost one Yonkers couple their lives. They nailed their front door shut, and installed metal bars on the windows. This, and the extreme clutter made firefighters unable to find them.
  • Maybe it’s time to visit (or re-visit) getting one of those safety alarm pendant/bracelets

Personally, I’ve seen fire up close and personal twice. The people got out ok. But the speed, and scope of physical devastation shook me to my core. Please take a look around and do what you can to keep others safe.

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