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Fire Safety for Seniors

The NIH Fire Marshal wants to remind everyone that fires in the home claim too many lives, and seniors are at additional risk. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, adults 65 and older are 2.6 times more likely to die in a fire than the general U.S. population. This increases to 3.8 times for those 85 and older. Reasons for this include: physical limitations that restrict ability to take quick action in a fire emergency; medication that affects decision-making ability; living alone without others to assist; and perhaps an excessive accumulation of possessions.

Montgomery County has a comprehensive website on senior safety:

Today, it is more important than ever to practice good fire prevention and planning in our homes. First, please take the time to watch this short video showing how fast modern furnishings burn and how little time you have to escape a home fire: (Anyone unable to view this or any videos in this message may contact the NIH Fire Marshal for a verbal explanation.)

Smoke Alarms

Depending on when your home was built or renovated, smoke alarms will provide varying degrees of coverage. Having the best early warning available may be more important for seniors who take longer to escape. This is achieved by installing smoke alarms on every level of your home and in each bedroom. Test all smoke alarms each month by pushing the test button until the alarm activates. Maryland law requires residents to replace all battery-powered smoke alarms that are more than 10 years old with smoke alarms having batteries with a 10-year life. Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Services offers free home safety evaluations and a smoke alarm program for senior and low-income homeowners by calling 311.

Fire Escape Plan

General precautions that apply to everyone include developing and practicing an escape plan, knowing two ways out, keeping bedroom doors closed, staying out after escaping, and escaping before calling 911. The following actions may help seniors in particular:

  • Plan your escape around your specific abilities and limitations.
  • Clear all clutter that may block your escape route or make you trip or fall.
  • Ensure the doorways are big enough to fit a wheelchair, walker, or other assistive devices you use.
  • In apartment and condo buildings, if you are unable to use stairs, you should stay in an area of refuge such as a stairway or apartment with the doors closed. Signal for help from windows if possible.
  • Always keep your phone in the same place to enable rapid 911 calls.
  • Sleeping with your bedroom door closed can save your life from smoke and fire injury or death. For more information watch the video "Close Before You Doze" (


Careless smoking is the leading cause of fire deaths and the second leading cause of injuries among people ages 65 and older. Smoking and relaxing can be a deadly mix – especially inside or on a wooden deck/porch. Falling asleep while smoking can ignite clothing, carpet and furniture. Using alcohol and medications that make you sleepy compounds this hazard.


Cooking fires are the number one cause of home fires. Stay in the kitchen when you are doing any type of stovetop or oven cooking. This is more important for seniors that may be experiencing memory issues. General precautions for everyone include:

  • Turn pot handles toward the back of the stove to prevent them from getting bumped.
  • If you must leave the kitchen, turn the burners off.
  • Keep things that can burn away from cooking area, even when not cooking.
  • If a stovetop fire does occur, slide a lid over the burning pan to smother the fire and turn off the gas or electric burner to prevent fire from spreading. For more information:

Fire Extinguishers

These can be helpful on small fires. If you choose to have a fire extinguisher at home, know how to use it safely and mount it near an exit. If a fire occurs, call 911 and ensure everyone else is escaping before attempting to extinguish the fire. An ABC type fire extinguisher is good for general home protection. BC type extinguishers with a sodium bicarbonate extinguishing agent clean up relatively easy for kitchen fires. For more information:

If you have any questions regarding the above precautions, please contact the NIH Fire Marshal at 301-496-0487. Anyone unable to view the videos may contact the NIH Fire Marshal for a verbal explanation.

The Fire Marshal's hazard reporting tool can be used for situations on the Bethesda campus: You may remain anonymous when reporting a hazard, but it always helps to have a contact so we can obtain information as needed.

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