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Fire and Burn Safety for Older Adults

Learn how to keep elders safe from fires and burns in their own homes.

Older adults are more than twice as likely to die in a fire as those younger than age 65. Older adults may experience physical and mental changes that make it hard to react quickly in emergencies. Learn how to keep elders safe from fires and burns. For additional help, contact the local senior center or fire department. 

Tips for preventing cooking fires

Cooking fires are the leading cause of injuries to older adults. Follow these tips to stay safe while cooking:

  • Wear short or tight-fitting sleeves when cooking. Loose sleeves easily catch fire.
  • Stand by your pan. Never leave cooking unattended. If you must leave the kitchen while you are cooking, take a potholder or cooking spoon with you as a reminder. Use timers.
  • Put a lid on stovetop fires to put them out.
  • Consider installing in-hood extinguishers that can contain a stove top fire. 
  • Encourage microwave use.
  • Consider installing high-heat limiting burner covers. They limit temperature so food will cook but a piece of paper will not ignite.

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Tips for preventing smoking fires

Smoking fires are a leading cause of death for older adults. Follow these safe practices to prevent smoking fires:

  • Smoke outdoors.
  • Use large, sturdy ashtrays or a can filled with sand to put out smoking materials.
  • Be sure that matches and smoking materials are fully extinguished. Wet them under a faucet before throwing them away.
  • Never extinguish cigarettes in potted plants or mulch.
  • If you are drowsy or falling asleep put out your cigarette. Never smoke in bed.
  • Never smoke while using oxygen, or near an oxygen source. If you must smoke, remove your oxygen, wait ten minutes, and go outside to smoke.

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Tips for preventing electrical fires

Electrical fires are the second leading cause of death for older adults. Follow these safe practices to prevent electrical fires:

  • Don't overload outlets and power strips.
  • Repair or discard anything with a frayed wire.
  • Use one appliance per outlet, especially if it is a heat generating appliance.
  • Don't run electrical cords under rugs or let them get pinched by furniture.
  • Extension cords are for temporary use only. They are not designed for long-term or permanent use.
  • Space heaters need at least 3-feet of space from anything that can burn.
  • Have a licensed electrician inspect your electrical system every 10 years. Small modifications
    can be made to keep the system current with your home's electrical needs.

Working smoke and carbon monoxide alarms save lives

Many senior fire deaths happen in homes where there are no smoke alarms or where the alarms are not operating. Learn to install and maintain smoke and carbon monoxide alarms.

  • Install smoke alarms on every level of a home and outside each sleeping area. If you cannot install one yourself, call a friend or your local fire department.
  • Replace batteries twice a year and test smoke alarms once a month.
  • Smoke alarms must be replaced every ten years.
  • Alarms cannot guarantee escape; they can only provide early warning. It is important to make and practice a home escape plan.
  • For people with a hearing loss, consider investing in strobe alarms for the living areas and a bed shaker alarm that “hears” the smoke alarm signal.

Plan for emergencies and home escape

  • Talk with seniors about how to get out of the house in three minutes in case of a fire.
  • Keep eyeglasses, canes, walkers, and hearing instruments next to the bed or wherever they sleep at night.
  • Make sure that pathways are clear of clutter. Objects can become major obstacles in an emergency.
  • Install night lights throughout the house to prevent falls.
  • Keep a whistle and a phone by the bedside. A whistle alerts household members to fire and rescuers to your location. A phone lets you call for help if you cannot escape.
  • Make sure house numbers are clearly visible from the street so first responders can find the house.
  • Contact the Senior Center or Fire Department about a File of Life that records the senior’s medications and is kept on or in the refrigerator. EMTs know to look there and take it if they need to take the senior to the hospital.
  • E-911 Disability Form: You can inform the local public safety center if someone uses a life support system such as home oxygen or has some other disability, in case of extended power outage or natural disaster.

Burns and first aid for older adults

Skin thins with age and the same burn will be much deeper on an elder than on a younger person. A decreased sense of touch from diabetic neuropathy can lead to worse burns. Learn to prevent and treat burns here:

  • Use oven mitts to protect against hot liquids and touching the hot ovens or pots.
  • Set the hot water heater temperature to 125 degrees F. Massachusetts law requires it to be between 110 and 130 degrees. Burns occur in seconds at higher temperatures.
  • Heating pads and electric blankets are a cause of burns for seniors. Consider a heating pad where you have to hold the control to keep it on.
  • Teach older adults to Stop, Drop and Roll to extinguish a clothing fire. Or, teach them to use a towel, blanket, robe, or coat to smother the flames.
  • Cool a burn. Run cool water over a minor burn. 
  • Get medical help immediately for more serious burns.
  • Use sunscreen to avoid sunburn.
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