When a fire started to burn in the upstairs flat of a duplex, the downstairs neighbor called the Milwaukee Fire Department.
As smoke billowed from the windows, the upper duplex’s occupant had failed to respond.
Carlos Velazquez-Sanchez said when he and other firefighters broke the door to enter the home, they found a ham cooking—or rather burning—in the oven.
It turned out that the upstairs neighbor was an elderly woman who had gone to church and thought she had more time.
“If the person is by the stove or kitchen, they’ll catch the fire in time,” Velazquez-Sanchez said. But people think it won’t happen to them, so they aren’t prepared.
Velazquez-Sanchez has been a firefighter for the past 12 years. Currently he works as the education specialist in the department’s community relations building, 1693 N. Franklin Place, which had previously housed Fire Engine 6.
Last year, the Milwaukee Fire Department responded to 3,192 fires in the Milwaukee area, according to the department’s annual report, which is set to be approved by the Fire and Police Commission later this month. It responded to 3,385 in 2017. This year, as of May, it has responded to 1,217 fires compared to 1,332 in 2018.
During his career, Velazquez-Sanchez has fought a lot of fires and most of them start in the kitchen, he said.
While car fires are more likely to occur in the fall because of dry leaves, house fires occur year- round no matter the weather, Velazquez-Sanchez said.
On average, there’s seven to 11 fires a day in Milwaukee. Typically, a fire will double in size almost every 30 seconds, Velazquez-Sanchez said.
Velazquez-Sanchez offers the following tips on dealing with a fire:
What to do if there is a fire
If there is a fire in your house, the first thing to do is make sure everybody leaves the house and to call 9-1-1. The sooner a call is made, the sooner the firefighters are dispatched. It usually takes a station three to seven minutes to arrive.
If the fire is smaller than a wastebasket, use a fire extinguisher and aim at the base and sweep to put out the fire. Make sure there are 20 feet to 30 feet between you and the fire and an exit behind you. Have someone ready to call 9-1-1.
Once the firefighters arrive and put out the fire, they’ll overhaul or break apart the walls to make sure the fire is completely out.
A fire extinguisher: Velazquez-Sanchez recommends having an ABC or a dry chem fire extinguisher, which are multipurpose. A water-based fire extinguisher may not be suitable to put out certain fires. Before using a fire extinguisher, make sure you understand how it works and practice using one.
Velazquez-Sanchez said that there are two types of fire extinguisher tops: plastic and metal. If the top is plastic, it should be replaced every year. If the top is metal, it can last up to 10 years but should be inspected every year. The fire extinguisher should be kept in an accessible place.
Smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors: There should be a smoke alarm on every level of the house, said Velazquez-Sanchez, because smoke alarms work 24 hours a day. Fire alarms can be sensitive so it’s best to have one 10 feet away from the stove.
Additionally, because smoke puts people into a deeper sleep, there should be smoke alarms in the hallway both outside the bedroom and in the bedroom if possible.
Smoke alarms should be replaced every 10 years and tested at least once a month. An interconnected system is recommended because when one sounds, then they all sound.
A carbon monoxide detector should be placed on the wall about five feet from the floor. The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are similar to the flu or food poisoning and includes headaches, nausea, dizziness, light headedness and shortness of breath.
Velazquez-Sanchez recommends a detector that is run by both batteries and electricity. If the power goes out or if the battery dies the detector can still function with the alternative one.
Escape plan: Everyone should have an escape plan and it should be planned with the entire household. Velazquez-Sanchez said people should draw a map of their home and determine two ways to escape from every room: either the door or the window. There also needs to be a meeting place to confirm that everyone has escaped.
Velazquez-Sanchez said families need to practice an escape to ensure that everyone knows what they’re doing.
Additional resources and advice: Velazquez-Sanchez recommends some habits to further ensure fire safety in the home. He said people should practice, “close before you doze.” In other words, close your bedroom door before sleeping to prevent the fire from spreading.
If a fire breaks out and you are trapped in your room, hang a blanket out the window and stay by the window. It’s important to stay visible, so that firefighters can find and rescue you.
During a fire, test the door and doorknob with the back of your hand before leaving the room. If it’s hot, use your alternative escape option. If it’s cool, then open the door slowly and check for flames. Once you leave the room, close the door behind you in case you have to return to your room.
Also, patch up old holes and spaces so a fire can’t spread. Keep the chute open in the fireplace when having a fire. Don’t smoke while using an oxygen tank. And park away from dry leaves to prevent car fires.
Milwaukee residents can call (414) 286-8980 for a free 10-year lithium battery smoke detector. Search “fire extinguisher inspections” online to find the place closest to you. You can also visit Survive Alive Milwaukee for more information.
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