Douglas Kemmerly 01132020

Douglas Kemmerly, chief of Columbia Borough Fire Department, discusses fire safety at the station Monday, Jan. 13, 2020.

When it comes to fire safety, complacency can be a killer.

People intend to test their smoke detectors monthly, or change their batteries — or even get detectors in the first place.

But too many people don't.

"I think even in the fire service, if you took a poll, I bet it wouldn't be a very high number who would test their smoke detectors monthly," said Duane Ober, secretary for the Lancaster County Fire Chiefs Association and administrator for the Warwick Emergency Services Commission.

Douglas Kemmerly, Columbia Borough's fire chief, agreed.

"I don't think you can ever take the human factor out" of fires, he said Monday.

LNP | LancasterOnline asked Kemmerly and Ober for fire safety tips after a fire in which a young mother and her 2-year-old daughter died earlier this month.

Their top tip is having a working smoke detector — at least one on each floor, including the basement, and ideally in each bedroom.

Test detectors monthly and annually replace batteries in detectors that use 9-volt batteries. Even better, consider smoke detectors that use lithium-ion batteries. Such detectors last 10 years and have become more common over the past half-dozen years.

Smoke detectors aren't a guarantee, but they buy time.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, the risk of dying in a home fire is 54% lower when working smoke alarms are present. And nearly 60% of home fire deaths involve missing or malfunctioning alarms.

Fire safety tips

• Have a carbon monoxide detector.

• If using a space heater, make sure it's UL-listed. That means it's approved by Underwriters Laboratories, which conducts product safety testing. And make sure the heater is at least six feet away from combustible materials. Any closer and it can degrade materials, making them more flammable.

• Don't overload outlets and extension cords and don't use extension cords with devices that say not to use them.

• Have an escape plan with at least two exits per room. If one exit is a second-floor window that leads only to the ground, have a safety ladder.

An escape plan is important because fires burn faster nowadays, Kemmerly said, and many materials off-gas toxic fumes when they burn.

Decades ago, when furniture was more likely to be made from solid wood and materials such as wool and cotton, people might have had 20 minutes to escape, he said. Now, with furniture commonly made from particle board with glue and coverings made from man-made materials, — even if the materials are flame-retardant, Kemmerly said people often have only a few minutes.

• Keep a fire extinguisher, but not too near the stove. Most fires start at the stove and if a fire occurs there, it could be difficult to get to the extinguisher if it's kept too close.

• Reduce clutter. Hoarded items provide fuel for fire and can make it difficult for emergency responders to navigate.

• Though winter is often considered fire season, fires happen anytime. In the summer, fireworks and grilling lead to fires and burning leaves and brush also lead to unintended fires.