We’ve all been fast asleep and jolted awake by a sudden noise. Usually someone in the home dropped something, or they were too loud in the kitchen. Fortunately in these moments we don’t have to respond quickly. We are able to return to sleep and continue about our business.

But what if the smoke alarm or carbon monoxide detector is going off? How quickly can we respond then? Even further, what if we are an older adult, who isn’t as capable of a speedy reaction?

Older adults in the United States represent 14% of the population, but in 2013 FEMA says they suffered 36 percent of all fire related deaths.

FEMA tells us that adults aged 65 and older are twice as likely to die in a fire, and a death in a fire related incident skyrockets even higher for those aged 75 or older, they’re three times more likely. The likelihood of death continues to increase with age. Older adults aged 85 are 3.6 times more likely to die from a fire related incident.

Whether you are an older adult that lives alone, with family, at a living center, or you’re the family member or friend of an older adult, having a plan ahead of a fire emergency may mean the difference between life or death. How should you prepare?

The Basics

If a fire threat is happening, start at square one; stay calm, get out of the house, and call 911. Once you’re outside of the house, remain outside until emergency responders arrive to take care of the situation.

NEVER return inside of a burning home for anything. If you have valuables that are important enough for a return back into the house, keep them near your bed and in a moveable location in case you ever need to grab them quickly.

If you ever realize that you’re on fire, proceed with “Stop, drop, and roll,” the age old adage. This process needs to be more delicate for older adults — proceed with caution, but follow the safety tip.


What Causes Fires?

Careless smoking is the most common cause of fires in the home. An older adult falls asleep with a lit cigarette in their hands, an ember sparks a fire and voilà! A fire is present.

Sleeping doesn’t have to be a factor, smoking in bed or lying down is just as common. If you are a smoker, we recommend always smoking outside and never near anything flammable.

Never smoke in the same area where oxygen is used. Always keep flammable materials away from oxygen tanks. If you are going to smoke in the home, have ashtrays that are deep and will contain flames, sparks, and other embers.

Other common causes:

  • Overloaded electrical outlets or frayed cords
  • Grease spills, stove negligence and other kitchen fires
  • The screen to a fireplace or wood burning stove is left open and sparks travel out
  • Combustible objects are placed near space heaters, blankets, newspapers, and other flammable items
  • Unattended candles catch nearby items, especially hazardous if pets or grandkids that may knock over items are in the home

The Primary Culprit

Kitchens are public enemy number one when it comes to home fires. Usually negligent behavior is involved; appliances are left on, unattended, or aren’t turned off. Even the best of us can remember a time where we left the stove-top on for a few minutes longer than it should have been.

If food is in the oven, check on it every fifteen minutes, and if you’re prone to forgetfulness or live with an older adult who struggles with memory loss or dementia, use timers and devices that remind them of tasks they need to keep track of.

Additional tidbits:

  • Don’t wear loose fitting clothing
  • Never leave the kitchen while cooking
  • Make sure that stoves and appliances are completely off before leaving the kitchen area
  • Proper Prevention

Install Smoke Alarms

Place smoke alarms inside and outside of every sleeping area on each floor.

Test Smoke Alarms

Smoke alarms require monthly testing, and alarms that are older than 10 years need to be replaced.

No Improper Heating Sources

Never rely on ovens, stove-tops, or any improper heating source to keep your home warm.

Space Heaters

Turn off space heaters when they aren’t in use, and have a three foot safety zone around any heating source. Always turn these devices off if you are leaving the home.


Escape Plans

Have an escape plan with at least two ways out of every room, and make sure that you are capable of opening all windows. Practice this escape plan a few times a year.

Keep Necessities Close By

Items like hearing aids, glasses and phones should be kept near your bed for quick access. This includes walking canes, wheelchairs and other belongings that are necessary for movement and fire escape.


Use strong bases and drip trays underneath all candles. Always extinguish candles before leaving any room or home.

Annual Cleaning

Make sure the chimney or wood stove-top is inspected once every year by a certified specialist.

No Unattended Flames

Don’t ever leave an open flame unattended. This includes a fire in the fireplace.

Electrical failures

Homes that have old and potentially faulty electrical equipment are a prime suspect for fire danger. Inspect the home and all electrical components with a qualified professional, especially if your home is 40 years or older, you purchased a previously owned home, major renovation occurred, or new appliances were added in the last 10 years.

Routine House Sweeps

Routine house sweeps to check on cords, outlets, switches, and appliances for any sign of damage will keep you up to date on hazards. Don’t use any damaged electrical appliances.


Responding to Fire Incidents

Most Important: Have an Escape Plan

Older adults should be kept on the ground floor to make their escape route easier and for quicker access to exits. Make sure that doorways and exits are fitted so that walkers and wheelchairs can fit, and make the necessary accommodations, like exit ramps and widening doorways.

A specific family member should be assigned to help the older adult during an escape, and make sure to inform the fire department about the special needs that are present in your home, so they have this information on file.

The home should be clean. This includes clear doorways, exits, hallways, stairs, and any other location where debris piles up. A clean house means people can exit the home safely when they need to.

If older adults have impaired hearing, a vibrating smoke alarm that will work despite hearing issues and in conjunction with a smoke detector is vital. The NFPA also offers a program known as “remembering when” to help older adults with fall and fire training. This is a free program that can be shared.

Knowing the risks means proper preparation. Share with older adults and caregivers you know.

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