The Advocate Asks: Saugus Fire Capt. Hughes discusses next weekend’s free Open House to promote fire safety, prevention tips
Editor’s Note: For this week’s interview, we sat down with Saugus Fire Captain James Hughes to talk about the free Open House that the Saugus Fire Department will host next Saturday, Oct. 13, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Central Fire Station (27 Hamilton St., Saugus). The event, which is sponsored by Papa Gino’s, is aimed at teaching families and individuals about what they can do to prevent house fires, about emergency planning they should do – such as developing multiple escape routes – and about tips on how to protect themselves in the event of a fire.
Hughes, a Melrose native, is a 1982 graduate of Melrose High School. He has worked 27 of his 32 years in firefighting in Saugus. He has been a fire officer for 24 years – working in fire prevention for more than nine years. Hughes was among several dozen firefighters from fire departments across the state who were honored in 2012 at the state’s 23rd Annual “Firefighter of the Year” Awards Ceremony. He was cited for showing great courage and risking his life in a December 2011 incident in which he dove into the Saugus River in an attempt with other firefighters to save a woman from a submerged car, which had crashed through the guardrail at Fox Hill Bridge. Hughes helped to free the unconscious woman from the car. She was later pronounced dead at the hospital. But Hughes, who ended up being treated in the hospital for hypothermia and an injured foot injury, was praised by then-Gov. Deval Patrick for an act of valor.
Some highlights of this week’s interview follow.
Q: So, let’s talk about Fire Prevention Week (Sunday, Oct. 7 through next Saturday, Oct. 13), which is coming up soon.
A: Fire Prevention Week has been going on since 1925. It’s observed on the anniversary week of the Great Chicago Fire, which was in 1871 [Oct. 8-9]. [The toll of the two-day fire: more than 250 people lost their lives, 100,000 were left homeless, 17,400 structures were destroyed and more than 2,000 acres of land were burned. This tragedy was the catalyst for new fire safety codes and public awareness campaigns. The National Fire Protection Association sponsors the weeklong national prevention campaign and uses it to highlight the importance of fire safety education.]
Q: Anything special in Saugus?
A: We’ve been partnering with Papa Gino’s, which has been sponsoring the Fire Prevention Open House for 24 years now in New England, in particular. Saugus has been having it just all of that time. It’s a great way for families to come in and meet the firefighters, but most important, ask questions and get a feel for different types of fire safety.
There is always a theme. This year’s theme is “Look, Listen and Learn.” It says right here [he reads from a Fire Prevention Week pamphlet], “Look for places fire could start. … Listen for the sound of the smoke alarm …. And Learn two ways out of every room.” That’s the theme for this year’s Fire Prevention Week. They try to keep it simple, and it’s more or less aimed at kids.
Look for hazards in the kitchen – look for stuff around the furnace and down cellar. Any type of hazards – candles – look for stuff that can happen.
Learn what the sound of the smoke alarm sounds like. There are several different kinds: Some talk to you; some beep and make lots of noise. And once they sound, learn what you should do.
Learn that you should have all of your doors closed in your house – interior doors – like the door to your bedroom and the doors that separate different rooms, because that can actually limit the fire spread. If you can control the movement of air, you can control the movement of fire, and by having the door closed, if you are in one room, it creates time. It buys you time. If there is a fire in your bedroom, you exit the bedroom and close the door behind you. It creates minutes upon minutes of time before that fire breaks out of the bedroom and gets into the other rooms, which in turn, gives you time to escape.
There should be a main way out of your house. Always know the main way. And you should always have a second way out. We talk about home fire escapes. But this is about everywhere you go, even when you go to the theatre. When you walk through the front door, once you find your seat, look for the closest exit. Same with the hotel – always when you go into the room. I always count the doors between me and a set of stairways – not the elevator – but a set of stairs, so I know a second way out should there be a problem. And everyone should always think about that no matter where they go and no matter what building they are in. One of the big problems outside the home is that everybody tries to exit the same way they came in because that’s the only way they are familiar with. But if people pay attention, there are many, many more exits in buildings of any type that they can use as an exit.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish at the Open House?
A: What I hope to accomplish is to bring families and kids in … so they get to meet us on a personal level. Sometimes the kids are too young …. but they can ask good questions. Kids can come up with some pretty observing questions, and we can answer whatever questions they have. We try to make it fun for them. There’s a smoke house. They can see what it’s like being in smoke. They can learn what’s it’s like to have a smoke detector go off and then crawl out of the house. We have a little hose-handling demonstration. We try to make it fun and interesting, so we can break down a little bit of nervousness.
On the adult side, we give the opportunity for the adults – can come in ask a question at any time – about the house, or smoke detector or whatever their questions could be. It’s a good opportunity for people to come in and just converse back and forth and learn some things that can make them safer and help save lives.
Q: Do you draw a big crowd?
A: Last year we had a good crowd.
Q: A couple of hundred?
A: I’d say at least a couple of hundred. Again, it depends on the weather. If it rains, we are not going to get as many. But last year it turned out to be a very nice day. It was on a holiday weekend. We usually try to keep it away from the holiday weekend. But last year, because of scheduling, it wound up on a holiday weekend. This year it winds up on the weekend after the holiday weekend, so we’ll see how it goes. We always try to have it on a Saturday because it seems to be the best day to have it. We’ve been doing this for 24 years now. And we expect to have a few hundred people here. That’s what we are prepared for.
Q: So what is your advice to new homeowners or people who are renting an apartment?
A: Make sure your smoke detectors work, and make sure there is a carbon monoxide detector on every level. Smoke detectors preferably inside very bedroom – not required by law in some instances. There is a pretty complicated formula of where smoke detectors need to be, but certainly, outside every living area, at the base of every stairs and on every living level of your house.
Q: Battery or electric?
A: In new construction, you have to have electric with backup batteries. In Massachusetts, you are required to have photoelectric smoke detectors.
It doesn’t matter in older homes. We don’t require electric. Good battery-operated ones are sufficient. The new ones now have long-life batteries in them. The batteries last 10 years, so you don’t have to worry every six months about changing your batteries anymore. That’s a huge feature now in the new ones.
And the time we enforce the smoke detectors codes are at the time of a sale. It’s really the only time we can gain entry to a home – when people are selling it.
Q: Do you think people are pretty good about installing the smoke detectors or are they lax?
A: Most houses that I go into are pretty good. You do find the ones that they haven’t changed the batteries or the smoke detector is outdated. Smoke detectors are only good for 10 years, and they have to be discarded and new ones installed. The same thing with carbon monoxide detectors: Ten years and they are up. But most people are pretty good. There’s been enough information over the last 20 years that most people are aware of the importance of smoke detectors. We can’t force anyone to do anything in a single-family home; apartments rented by landlords is a different story.
Q: You can’t sell the house without one, though.
A: That’s correct. You can’t sell it without it, but there is nothing to say that after the sale that the new owners won’t walk in and take them off the ceiling. That’s just the nature of the thing, but the first priority of anyone moving into a new home is to make sure the smoke detectors work – whether they are electrical or battery-operated. That’s number one.
Q: Any other advice?
A: Make sure you know your exits. Whether it’s crawling out a window onto a roof … most single family homes, you know where the windows are – or going out another door, so know your second way out.
Q: What are some of the common mistakes people make?
A: They put the smoke detectors in the wrong place. Massachusetts does not allow smoke detectors to be put on walls. They have to be on the ceilings, even though they say on the directions that they can be put on walls. Massachusetts says they have to be put on the ceilings, so that’s a common mistake.
Another one is clutter around the house – boxes, paper or stuff that’s a fire hazard and also blocks a doorway – also misuse of candles, putting stuff too close to heating sources: furnaces, boilers, space heaters in particular. You have to keep a wide buffer: three feet all around it.
Q: A common one I see while driving around is having a grill on the porch.
A: Grill on the porch – that’s a common one. It’s not supposed to be on a combustible porch. Decks that are made of stone or patios, they are okay. But combustible decks or porches, they [grills] are not supposed to be anywhere near them.
Q: But it’s common.
A: Yeah, we see that all of the time. It’s common in all towns. And you’ve got to keep your grill away from the house, too – the garage, the back of the house or whatever.
Another mistake: not making sure the vents to the heating system stay clear. A common thing here in New England is that the new direct vents without the chimneys – make sure the snow stays away from them. Don’t let stuff pile up against them. It might seem easy, but people have a tendency to forget it.
Q: What’s the most common fire hazard in the home? One that you see the most of?
A: Again, clutter has a lot to do with it. Clutter. Not having smoke detectors. Make sure that your heating system is serviced once a year. Don’t use your oven as a heating source; use a proper heating source.
Q: What kind of precautions can people take to reduce the potential for electrical fires?
A: Electrical fires? Make sure you don’t overload power strips, especially the inexpensive ones. Get a good quality one when you use power strips. To prevent electrical fires, probably the biggest thing is to use a proper size cord. Make sure the circuit is not overloaded and make sure everything works the way it’s supposed to work. Make sure nobody modifies anything.
Q: How about a cord that runs under the carpet?
A: Yes, you can’t have that. You need to make sure the cord is properly routed and eliminate the use of extension cords altogether if you can. If you know you are going to have something set up for a long time, have an electrician come in and put in a proper outlet for it.
Q: And if a plug is hot to the touch, it’s time to replace that appliance. Like on a toaster.
A: If the plug is hot, call the Fire Department. If something should cause the plug to get hot, you should take it [appliance] out of commission immediately, because it [the plug] will eventually melt. Whether it will cause a fire or not, I don’t know, but it will eventually melt. If it’s hot, it’s just friction, and if it’s electrical, it’s not doing what it is supposed to do.
Q: Given the recent gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley, any advice to homeowners who have gas?
A: Of course, if you smell gas exit the home immediately and call 911 from outside. Don’t use your phone inside. Don’t turn on lights. Don’t do anything that can cause a spark, because there are plenty of things inside the house that will cause a spark without you doing anything. Cellphones. Alarm clocks. The phone ringing, if you still have a home phone. Different things with timers that go off and on. The water heat kicking on. Most newer appliances don’t have pilot lights. Some do. Most of the newer ones don’t. If you have a water heater that kicks on when there is gas present, there is always a spark.
So, if you think you smell gas, exit immediately and call 911 from outside. We have the meters that can check for it, and we’ll call the gas company. And that goes for any kind of gas: propane, natural gas, gasoline. There’s always a chance of a gas container falling over inside of the garage. Even if you don’t have gas in your house, call if you think you smell gas. Houses can get gas in them even if they don’t have gas heat inside the house. Gas takes the path of least resistance and can follow water right inside the house, so you don’t have to have gas to have a gas problem.
Q: How many of the house fires you responded to could have been prevented?
A: All of them.
Q: But there are some that are electrical and may have been caused by wiring inside the walls that the homeowner doesn’t know about. You may not know if you have bad wiring.
A: Yeah. It does happen, but it’s almost like an automobile accident. If you study automobile accidents, it’s always a bad decision, so electrical fires caused by bad wiring are preventable.
Q: Even in cases where you have mice gnawing at the wires you don’t see?
A: If you kept the mice out of the house to begin with, that wouldn’t be a problem. A high percentage of the fires that are electrical could have been prevented. And most fires can be prevented. Overall, you have the fires with the candles that are too close to the combustibles, improper use of space heaters, extension cords that are overloaded, heating equipment that has not been maintained. There’s a fair amount of fires that could be prevented.
Q: Like painting material near a heater.
A: Yes, painting material near a heater. Oily rags. Rags with solvents on them.
Q: How about lint in the dryer vent hose?
A: Yes. Lint in the dryer vent hose. Again, that goes back to improper maintenance.
Q: Most people don’t bother cleaning the lint out of the dryer vent hose.
A: Yes. Most people don’t. Again, that goes back to maintenance.
Q: And they have these aluminum ones now that are safer.
A: Yes. They’re metalized and they are safer. You’re not supposed to use the white hoses anymore, because they just melt away.
I’m not going to say 100 percent of the fires can be prevented. But a big percentage of them can. I’m not sure what the number is, but you got to be careful. It doesn’t take much to get a fire going, and they double in size every minute.
One of the new trends that’s coming out now is home sprinklers. They don’t require them in all new homes in Massachusetts, but every once in a while, they are required. We have two in Saugus, right now, that because of their location, are required to have home sprinklers. And they [sprinklers] do contain the fire very well.
Q: Let’s talk about exits.
A: People should always have more than one exit from the house in the event of a fire and have a meeting place – whether it be the neighbor’s front porch, a light pole in front of the house or a telephone post – they should have some place to meet and take a headcount. That way they can tell the Fire Department when they arrive that everybody has been accounted for. It changes the way we do things a little. And don’t forget guests. Everyone remembers their families, but every once in a while, you hear about a guest being forgotten about. We’re still going to search [the house] just in case, but it takes a little bit of the pressure off and will keep us from getting hurt at the same time.
Q: What’s the leading cause of house fires?
A: Smoking is still the leading cause of fire deaths in Massachusetts.
Q: And the leading cause of house fires?
A: Yes, they still are, believe it or not. And even though Massachusetts a few years ago instituted a fire safe cigarettes law [for all cigarettes sold in the state], smoking is still a considerable problem and the major cause of house fires.
Q: What are the most common fire safety code violations that the Fire Department sees?
A: I would say smoke detectors; that’s the leading one; not having the batteries changed or having smoke detectors in the proper location.
Q: Anything else that you would like to shed some light on?
A: Just be careful around the house. Make sure family members are aware of the escape routes and practice them. A plan is no good if you don’t practice it; and if you don’t practice it, you won’t remember it when you need it.
Q: You mean a regular fire drill?
A: A fire drill. Yes, have some home fire drills. It may sound corny. It might be corny to do. I know people are under a lot of stress at home timewise, but you know what, spending five minutes every couple of months won’t really hurt things. Everybody has enough time to be safe around the house. And take a look around the house and move combustibles away from your fireplace, your boiler, your heater, your heating system. We’ll be coming into the holiday season pretty soon. Candles become a big thing, and the overloaded circuits become even more critical. Extension cords: Use the proper size extension cord and make sure everything is grounded the way it’s supposed to be grounded. Some of the little lamp cords aren’t grounded, but most of them are. Keep in mind that older electrical cords deteriorate over time, so it might be time to upgrade to newer extension cords. Be careful of the inexpensive and cheaply made power strips. They might seem like a good deal, but they really aren’t a good deal.
We’re kind of living in a time now where everything uses less electricity, but conversely, there are more things using electricity. It seems like an oxymoron. LED lights use less electricity, but you might have six things plugged into your computer power strip. You’re not really using less electricity because you are using more devices.
We’d just like to make sure everybody comes to our Open House, enjoys themselves and gets to meet the guys who are here and see the equipment we use and learn about fire safety in their homes.
(Editor’s Note: For more information about the Saugus Fire Department Open House, set for next Saturday, Oct. 13, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., check out this week’s “The Sounds of Saugus.” You can also call Captain James Hughes or Captain Scott Phelan at 781-941-1170.)