Mrs. Esther Horowitz of Boro Park remembers the day five years ago when she was burned out of her house. It was Leil Shemini Atzeres and she had just gone to the shul where her husband serves as Rav. They were finishing up hakafos and getting ready for the Yom Tov seudah, to be held in shul. “We were about to make Kiddush, and my neighbor came running in. She said, ‘Your house is on fire! There’s smoke coming out of the windows!’ I did not believe her — I was in total denial. My husband put down his becher, as did my sons, and they ran out to the house. My youngest daughter-in-law, who was with us in shul, said to me, ‘Don’t you want to go see what is happening?’ I responded blithely, ‘No, they will be right back.’ But they did not come right back. Eventually we decided to go to the house, where we saw that the street was closed off and there were flashing lights all around. At that point, the flames were out and the firemen were boarding up the windows. And there, sitting calmly on the top step, was the new doll I had purchased for my granddaughter on Erev Yom Tov. It was surreal.”
It was with great siyatta diShamaya that no one was present when fire broke out in the Horowitz home, and that no one in the building got hurt. However, this is not always the case. Tragically, every year fires devastate property, families and lives.
Fire Safety and Prevention: Some Key Tips
Understanding basic ways to prevent fires and what to do in case a fire breaks out are key to preventing loss of life and minimizing property damage, b’siyatta diShmaya. Hamodia spoke with Rabbi Avi Greenstein, Executive Director of the Boro Park Jewish Community Council, who emphasized the importance of learning about fire safety, implementing a fire safety plan for the family and, of course, installing appropriate smoke detectors.
Rabbi Greenstein also emphasized the need for proper fire insurance. “Stop what you are doing right now, not next week, and make sure you have fire insurance,” he insisted. “You can protect hundreds of thousands of dollars of property with less than $20 a month. Then sit down with your family around the table and discuss what the family can do to help stay safe. Discuss how one should leave the house in case of a fire and where the family will meet afterward. This is a conversation that no one wants to have, but now is the time to have that conversation.”
In order to promote fire safety awareness, in 2017 the BPJCC, in partnership with State Senator Simcha Felder and the American Red Cross, launched a fire safety preparedness partnership.
As part of this initiative, Bork Park residents can call the BPJCC to make an appointment for a Red Cross representative to come to the home, install smoke detectors in each room free of charge, and do a general fire safety check. (The BPJCC’s phone number is 718-972-6600. Many other communities have similar programs. Contact your local fire department for more information.)
“I want to thank Senator Felder for joining us in this initiative,” said Rabbi Greenstein. “We want to help our community understand fire safety, and it is the vision, support and encouragement of Senator Felder that will help us consistently grow this initiative.”
Get Out Now
Many wonder how much time one has to leave the house once a fire starts. According to recent studies, fires in homes built to modern construction design and standards spread much more quickly than in older homes. Underwriters Laboratories Firefighter Safety Research Institute (UL FSRI), which conducts fire safety testing, found that one has three minutes or less to get out of a house that has caught fire.
“Most people underestimate the speed and power of fire and smoke,” says the National Fire Protection Association. “You shouldn’t fumble with the fire extinguisher, grab your photo albums or even rescue your cat. Get Out!”
UL FSRI writes that 30 years ago, one had up to 17 minutes to escape a house fire, but today’s homes burn faster. This is due in part to open floor plans, which both provide oxygen to fuel fires and don’t hamper their progress. Furthermore, synthetic building materials and furnishings burn at a much faster rate than natural products. In a staged experiment, UL FSRI tracked how quickly a modern living room went up in flames, compared with a vintage one. The so-called “legacy” room transitioned to flashover, or rapid spread of the fire, in nearly 30 minutes; the modern room transitioned in fewer than four.
In all cases, though, even if one is living in a home with older construction, one should get out as quickly as possible.
Fire Extinguishers Not Recommended
Contrary to popular belief, fire extinguishers are not highly recommended. In fact, people have died while trying to put out fires with fire extinguishers. Unless one is highly trained in using it, trying to figure out how to deploy the extinguisher wastes precious time.
Mr. Stephen Kerber, director of UL FSRI, relates that he conducted an experiment at a fire training center, thrusting fire extinguishers into the hands of unsuspecting volunteers. Every single one made critical mistakes while attempting to use it. (FEMA says one should only use a fire extinguisher if he is trained to use it properly, he can put out the fire in five seconds or less, the fire is small and contained, there is no flammable material nearby, he has the right type of extinguisher for that the type of fire, and there are two ways to exit the area if he fails.)
A fire can double in size every minute, explains fire investigator Donny Boyd from Montgomery County, Md., and many people have, lo aleinu, perished in fires while trying to put them out by themselves. Struggling with a fire extinguisher often results in a delay in calling 911. Your priority should be to get out of the house as fast as possible.
It Happened to Me
Mrs. Esther Horowitz’s house fire was electrical in nature, starting due to some old wiring beneath the floorboards. Before leaving her home that Shemini Atzeres evening, she had begun feeling extremely hot in her apartment. Without realizing that the heat was coming from worn wiring, she and her family decided to leave for shul a bit earlier than originally planned. It was just a short while later that she was alerted to the fact that her house was on fire.
Mrs. Horowitz also describes the chessed and hashgachah pratis that she experienced following the blaze. She noticed with amazement how some items in her home were damaged beyond repair and some were not. For example, her “hachnasas orchim” room was smokey but not too waterlogged; the multiple gifts she had received over the years while working as a principal in Pupa girls’ school were not destroyed completely by the fire; and all shelves and drawers where she had stored a segulah against unfortunate occurrences, written by the holy Yismach Moshe, zy”a, were salvageable, even if they were covered in soot and smoke.
Pulling Through and Planning Ahead
Neighbors offered sleeping accommodations for the family, and after Yom Tov local stores gave the family clothing, linen and towels free of charge. Once they found their new apartment they were given furniture and beds wholeheartedly. “People are very special — Mi k’amcha Yisrael!” Mrs. Horowitz insists. Nevertheless, the event was very traumatic and now, a few years later, she still gets nervous when she hears the sirens of fire engines or the shrieking of a smoke alarm, or scents the smell of smoke.
Her advice? “Get fire insurance — it is worth every penny. Our biggest mistake was pushing it off. Also, make sure you have both working carbon monoxide detectors and smoke detectors. If my carbon monoxide detector had been a more sensitive model, it would have picked up the gas before the fire broke through. It is also crucial to keep all important papers, such as passports, birth and marriage certificates, medical insurance cards, social security cards and bank information in a specific, safe and fireproof place so they can be quickly and easily located when necessary.”
‘Beyond Derech Hateva’
Mrs. S. of Monsey relates how a controlled fire on her front porch suddenly got out of hand. Within seconds, the fire traveled up the vinyl siding of her home, reached the roof, and within seconds exploded into a massive fire.
Baruch Hashem, no one was inside the home. But those standing outside, waiting for the proper authorities to extinguish the fire, watched helplessly as their house burned. “The manner in which the fire caught on and quickly got out of control was beyond derech hateva. These major fires can happen very quickly, and often there was nothing that could have been done to prevent them,” Mrs. S. attests.
The family’s troubles did not, unfortunately, die with the fire. They were left with extensive property damage — a home with a gaping roof, smoke and water damage, ruined furniture — and are still dealing with the insurance company, a time-consuming and draining process. At the same time, the Monsey community seized the moment and proved its quality. Several stores offered new clothing and more to the family, and while the S. family was able to stay with grandparents immediately after the fire, friends and neighbors sent cake and chocolate to show their care and concern, which Mrs. S. found very meaningful.
“What advice do I have to offer? First of all, make sure you have fire insurance. Keep valuables, such as your kesubah, passport and other papers that are not easily replaceable, in a fireproof box.
“Many people want to be helpful and offer suggestions and ideas and tips for dealing with the insurance company. But hearing different ideas from different people can get very confusing. Every situation is different, and it is not a good idea to try to tell others what to do. Although I know people meant well, it did not always come out that way.”
The presence of fire in our home is not only inevitable, it is necessary to function both as human beings and as frum Yidden. Consequently, knowing the proper measure of hishtadlus and enacting proper precautions is our responsibility. Rabbi Greenstein states, “As frum Yidden, we are very connected with fire — it is part of our way of life. It is not only Chanukah; we have Shabbos licht and Havdalah every week, we have biur chametz on Erev Pesach and bonfires on Lag BaOmer. So we have to [do] our hishtadlus, be on guard, never leave fire unattended, and learn how to be safe.”
Fire Safety on Chanukah
Fire is an integral part of Chanukah, from the cherished mitzvah of lighting the menorah to the minhag of frying latkes and doughnuts. Yet, the cost of underestimating the dangers of fire can be high. Take time to review and implement fire safety precautions all year long.
- Before Chanukah, check smoke-detector batteries.
- Keep menoros at least four feet from curtains, shades, cabinets, decorations or plants. Remove or tie back any curtains, drapes or blinds.
- Place menoros on a sturdy, non-flammable, level surface, ideally on a metal tray. Place the menorah so that if it falls over, it will not fall onto anything flammable. Use a sturdy menorah that is not made of flammable material such as plastic or wood.
- Make sure the menorah cannot be knocked over by a door opening, someone passing by, a gust of wind or a falling object.
- Keep menoros, lighters and matches out of the reach of young children.
- Clear your lighting surface of paper and oil spills.
- Before lighting, check that candles or oil cups are secure in their holders.
- When lighting the menorah, keep long hair and loose clothing away from the flames.
- Do not leave a lit menorah unattended, and do not go to sleep while the lecht are burning. Never leave children alone in a room with a lit
- Supervise any child who lights a menorah. Make sure he is standing in a place where he will not have to reach over another menorah.
- When frying latkes or doughnuts:
- Keep towels, paper towels and anything else that is flammable at least three feet from the stove.
- Never leave the stove unattended.
- Be aware of loose sleeves or hanging clothes.
- Create a child-free safety zone of at least three feet around the stove.
- In the event of a grease fire, turn off the burner and smother the flames with a metal (not glass) pot lid, salt or baking soda. Do not pour water on the fire, as this will spread it.
- Take reasonable precautions to prevent burns.