Senior winter fire safety: what you need to know
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Senior winter fire safety: what you need to know

As the weather cools down, now is the time that we start reaching for our electric blankets and pulling our heaters out of storage. While it’s important to stay warm in winter, we also need to make sure that we stay safe – and help protect our loved ones – from fires and burns.

According to Fire and Rescue NSW, the number of home fires rises by 10 percent during the cooler months, with more incidents due to the use of heaters and electric blankets in the home. Seniors are particularly vulnerable, as close to one in three fire fatalities involve people who are over 65 years’ old.

Here are some fire safety tips to help you and your family stay safe this winter.

Heaters in the home

 Heaters are a common way to keep a house warm during winter, but it’s important to be safe when using them. Here are some safety measures to keep in mind:

  • Check your heater at the beginning of each winter – inspect your gas or electric heater for wear and tear, frayed cords or any damage at the start of each winter. If you aren’t sure what to look for, ask your carer or a family member for help. If you suspect something is faulty, have the item checked by a qualified repairer or replaced.
  • Make sure your heater is in a stable position – accidentally knocking over a heater can cause a fire, so make sure it is placed in a safe location that is not in the way, and cords are not a trip hazard.
  • Never use a heater to dry clothes – it’s important to keep all flammable materials such as curtains, tablecloths and clothes at least a metre away from the heater.
  • Don’t sit too close to a heater – older adults lose body heat faster than younger people, which makes them feel the cold more easily. Make sure you don’t sit too close to the heater, and be careful if you are wearing loose-fitting garments (such as a dressing gown or cardigan) as this could be a fire risk.

Electric blankets

An electric blanket can help you sleep more comfortably if you have trouble staying warm at night in bed. They should be used carefully, though, to ensure you stay safe.

  • Inspect your blanket at the beginning of each winter – you can do this by laying it out flat on your bed while switched on, leaving it for five minutes and checking for uneven hot spots. If you notice any hot spots, abnormalities in the internal wires or cord damage, the blanket should be replaced.
  • Roll your blanket when not in use – don’t fold your blanket when storing your blanket in the cupboard, as this can cause damage and increase the risk of a fire.
  • Use the blanket to warm your bed, not to sleep under – electric blankets are not designed to be used while you are sleeping. If possible, only use it to warm your sheets up before getting into bed. If you need extra warmth while you sleep, try an extra blanket or socks.

Hot water bottles and wheat bags 

Hot water bottles and wheat bags are simple to use and can help relieve pain, but require a bit of care to protect against burns.

  • Never use boiling water to fill a hot water bottle – this puts you at risk of burns. Use hot water instead and wrap the bottle in a towel or pillow case so it doesn’t directly make contact with your skin.
  • Replace your hot water bottle every two years – even more if you use them regularly, as the rubber can wear away through use (even on the inside).
  • Use a wheat bag properly – follow the product’s instructions when heating, using and storing your wheat pack, and never use them in bed or while sleeping, as they are only meant to be applied directly on the body.
  • Never heat a wheat pack in the microwave for longer than the specified time – wheat bags can easily ignite if they become over heated. Also never reheat them before they have completely cooled down.
  • Check and replace your wheat bag regularly – if you see signs of wear and tear or scorching, replace them promptly, as the filling can become combustible over time.
  • Let your wheat bag cool completely before putting it away – leave it to cool on a non-combustible surface before storing it away.

What to do in an emergency 

Accidents can happen at any time. It’s important to be prepared so that if the unthinkable happens, you’ll know how to handle the situation.

Firstly, make sure you and your loved ones know two safe and clear ways out of every room in your house. Have a written escape plan in case of a fire and practice it regularly with family members, especially at the start of winter. Ensure everyone knows to call 000 in case of an emergency.

The following tips also help:

  • Keep a fire extinguisher and fire blanket in a location near the exit of your kitchen in case of hire
  • Make sure all the keys to locked doors are easy to access in a hurry
  • Familiarise yourself with what to do in case someone has a burn or scald. Here is a helpful fact sheet from St Johns Ambulance Australia.

It’s also important to make sure your smoke alarms are regularly tested. Legally, you must have at least one working smoke alarm on each level of the home, placed between bedrooms and in living areas.

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