MCFRS News Release

Responding to Emergencies can be Difficult in Frigid Weather

Residential Sprinkler Activates - Squelches Townhouse Fire in Gaithersburg

Extinguishing cold weather fires presents unique challenges to firefighters. Not only is fire fighting a physically demanding profession, fighting fires and responding to medical emergencies in cold weather can be even more challenging for many reasons.

Ice, snow and extremely cold temperatures can impede the response to the fire. Slippery roads and hazardous conditions affect emergency apparatus in the same manner as any other vehicle. Additionally, since establishing an effective water supply is crucial to extinguishing a fire, in extreme weather conditions firefighter's equipment and small tools can be affected by frigid temperatures and may freeze or be more difficult to use. In some extreme cases fire fighters might need to search for a hydrant or other water source that is not frozen. Once a water supply has been established, firefighting equipment can become covered with ice, hose lines can become brittle and even break and simply walking around an area sprayed with water that turns to ice can become treacherous.

Firefighters are at increased risk of injury and dehydration during winter operations. In fire situations, where structures are evacuated because of a fire, the residents are also placed at greater risk due to frigid temperatures. Additional resources such as busses are often required in order to assist evacuees.

According to data from the U.S. Fire Administration thirty percent of all fires occur during the winter months, including February. In residences, however, more fires occur in the winter (37%) than in the other two-thirds of the year.

Winter residential fires are more damaging and deadly than that of all residential fires. The leading causes of residential fires in the winter are heating, cooking and improperly discarded smoking materials. This contrasts with the all-year causes where cooking is the leading cause followed by heating. The increase in residential heating related fires in the winter is not surprising. Nearly 40% of residential fire related injuries and 50% of residential fatalities occur between the beginning of November and end of February.

Considering the numbers of deaths and injuries over the year; nationally, January is the peak month for both measures. The winter months of January and February are typically some the busiest times of the year for firefighters. Cooking, home heating systems, heating equipment and associated electrical systems, as well as combustibles too close to a heat source continue to be significant factor in structural fires in Montgomery County. Many of these fires can be prevented.

The leading causes of all fires are improperly discarded smoking materials, cooking, heating equipment (including those associated with space heaters and fireplaces), arson and electrical (not necessarily in that order).

Cooking is the leading cause of home fires in the United States throughout the year. It is also the leading cause of fire related injuries. Three in every ten reported home fires start in the kitchen - more than any other place in the home.

However, during the winter months of December, January and February fires related to heating equipment becomes the number one cause of residential fires, this includes those associated with fireplaces, space heaters and furnaces.

Around 9:45 a.m. on January 25, 2007 units from the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service responded to the report of a townhouse on fire at 18031 Fertile Meadow Court, in the Emory Grove Hills area of Gaithersburg. First arriving personnel encountered an activated residential sprinkler in the basement of a townhouse. It appears as though an occupant was working in the basement when an aerosol paint can fell from a shelf breaking the spray mechanism on the can. The flammable paint spray was discharged and it immediately found an ignition source at a nearby furnace resulting in a 'flash fire.' The resultant fire activated the residential sprinkler which controlled the fire. There were no injuries and damage was minimal.

With the exception of the difference in cause of residential fire, winter fires are not particularly different from those fires that occur throughout the year. There are slight variations, however, in the area of fire origin. As would be expected by the increase in heating equipment related fires, chimney fires, for example, increase during the winter months.

The best protection a family can have in order to survive a home fire is the combination of a residential sprinkler system and working smoke alarms. Beginning last year all new single family homes have been required to have residential sprinkler systems in Montgomery County. It is recommended that a smoke alarms be installed on every level of a home and families have and practice a home escape plan.