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Protect your home from a fire

January 23, 2015 | Dominique A. Penson

One of the unique areas of our practice is representing New York City firefighters injured in the line of duty.  In the course of investigating hundreds of such cases, we have found that most fires start in very predictable ways, and are usually entirely preventable.  We want to share with you some of the recurring causes of fires, and suggest some common-sense things that you can do to prevent a fire in your home.

Dryer vent

The vent that extends out of the back of your dryer is called a dryer vent.  Lint accumulates inside the vent reducing airflow and creating conditions ripe for a fire. Lint is highly combustible. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates that over 15,500 dryer-related fires occur each year. The most frequent starting point for these fires was the dryer vent. The typical scenario is simple: the dryer overheats, the lint catches fire and the fire spreads to combustibles in the immediate vicinity (these fires can smolder for hours going unnoticed until after you’ve gone to bed or left your house for an errand).

There may be warning signs that dangerous lint build up is occurring in your dryer and venting system, including:

  • Clothes take longer and longer to dry or don’t fully dry;
  • Clothes are hotter than normal at the end of the drying cycle;
  • The outside of dryer gets very hot;
  • The outside exhaust vent flapper does not open very much indicating low exhaust velocity;
  • The laundry room becomes more humid than it is usually;
  • A burnt smell is evident in the laundry room.

How often you should clean your vent depends on many factors.  You should consider how much laundry you do, whether you have pets that shed hair, whether your dryer vent is long, and whether the vent has angles. You should of course follow the instructions in the manual that comes with your dryer. As a general rule of thumb though, you should have the vent cleaned at least every 2 years. Just because the dryer seems to be working fine is definitely not a good reason to put off cleaning it.  There are many companies that specialize in dryer vent cleaning.  It may be smart in invest in a routine cleaning to have peace of mind.

Extension cords

Extension cords can cause deadly fires if not used properly.  Overloading the cord, or connecting it to an appliance that consumes more watts than the cord can handle, can cause the cord to overheat. Only use extension cords for portable devices such as a fan, lamp, etc.  Be aware that New York City law prohibits the use of extension cords as a substitute for permanent wiring.

Coiling up an extension cord can also cause the cord to overheat, because the heat cannot dissipate efficiently.  Extension cords should be extended out.  The shouldn’t be run underneath rugs, or crimped in any way.  You probably already know that a damaged extension cord can cause a fire.  You should check extension cords for visible signs of wear, and discard old or worn cords.  If the cord gets hot, stop using it.

Power strips

FDNY fire marshals, as well as the Fire Safety Education unit, urge all New Yorkers to never plug large-draw electrical appliances – such as televisions, air conditioners, clothes dryers, refrigerators and freezers – into power strips and extension cords. These types of appliances require a lot of energy, which easily can cause power strips or extension cords to overheat, melt or ignite.


Candles may be lovely to look at, but they are extraordinarily dangerous if not used properly.  More than half of all fires occur because the candle is too close to something that can burn.  In our law practice, we have seen several fires caused by candles placed in front of an open window, causing drapes to ignite.  Obviously, candles should never be left unattended, and should never be placed in front of any open window or fan, or in a place where they can fall.  Keep candles, matches and lighters out of the reach of children, as fire is very attractive to them. Don’t assume that your child will not be curious. 


The FDNY has a response category called “food on stove.”  If you’re frying, grilling, or cooking with an open flame, do not leave your food unattended.


If you must smoke, never smoke in bed.  Make sure you extinguish your cigarettes.  Try to smoke outside and, again, make sure you extinguish your cigarette after you discard it.


Keep furniture, curtains, dishtowels and anything that could catch fire at least 3 feet from any type of heat source like space heaters, baseboards, fireplaces, pilot lights and hot plates.


Change smoke alarm batteries every year.  Replace smoke alarms every ten years. 


The infamous Father’s Day Fire took the lives of three firefighters.  From our work on that case, we learned about the risks associated with pilot lights that are low to the ground.  Water heaters that were manufactured prior to 2003 are not equipped with flame arrestors.  The CSPC has long recognized that water heaters that do not have flame arrestors should be placed on a stand, elevated 18″ above the floor.  This is because flammable vapors are heavier than air, and will collect at the floor.  Elevating the water heater greatly reduces the risk of fire in the event flammable vapors are present.  Water heaters that were manufactured after 2003, that are equipped with flame arrestors, do not need to be elevated.

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