Toxic smoke warning to Shropshire residents

(Clockwise from the left) Firefighter Terry Evans, Firefighter Michael Jones, Firefighter Mick Davidson, Firefighter Tom Green, Watch Manager Alex Howells and Firefighter Barry Lucas.

Get a smoke alarm and test it weekly – that is the stark advice from Shropshire firefighters to avoid dying from toxic smoke in a house fire.

Just two to three breaths of toxic smoke and "you're unconscious," warned community fire safety officers at Shropshire Fire and Rescue Service just days after a Shropshire student was critically injured after suffering toxic smoke inhalation.

"Toxic smoke affects your ability to breathe. It is a sensation similar to drowning," said Guy Williams, temporary station manager at Tweedale fire station in Telford.

A 21-year-old student from Broseley Wood is recovering after he was rescued last week from Liverpool Hope University by firefighters who said that he was very close to death when they found him unconscious and not breathing in a kitchen surrounded by toxic smoke. Firefighters revived him after getting to him within a minute of arriving on the scene. The fire may have started from a chip pan.

"If you do not have a working smoke alarm and test it weekly then you do take the risk of literally drowning in the smoke of a house fire. Smoke takes hold devastatingly quickly. It takes you completely by surprise and the only way to get a warning, especially if you are asleep at night, is with a smoke alarm," said Mr Williams.

In 2007 there were almost 35,000 accidental house fires in England resulting in 200 deaths. There were 7,100 injuries – 19 a day.

People vastly underestimate the impact of toxic smoke, said Mr Williams.

In a national survey, almost half of people polled thought they could survive for more than two minutes in a smoke filled room.

"This is unlikely, toxic smoke can kill a child in under a minute," said Rabinder Dhami, Team Leader in Community Fire Safety at Shrewsbury fire HQ

Residents also wrongly believed that the smell of smoke would alert them when, in reality, gases and smoke from a fire numb the senses and put you into a deeper sleep.

A fifth said that either their dog or another member of the household would raise the alarm.

"The only thing you should rely on is a working smoke alarm. It buys you time for you and your family to get out," said Mr Dhami.

People living in homes without a smoke alarm are more than twice as likely to die in an accidental house fire, he revealed.

Residents should fit a smoke alarm on each level of their home, test alarms weekly, plan an escape route, and check electrical appliances are safe in the kitchen as this is where most house fires start.

21st January, 2010