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Fire & Life Safety: Finding Solutions for Stovetop Cooking Fires

As fire chiefs, it's important we share innovative solutions that reduce community risk. I believe the phrase Noblesse Oblige says it best: the position demands it of us.

A recent life loss in my community due to unattended cooking is a reminder that stovetop cooking fires represent the largest cause of home fires. Cooking fires reportedly are responsible for about 420 deaths, 5,300 injuries and $993 million in direct property loss in the U.S. in 2010. Cooking as a percentage of home structure fires (42%) has more than doubled since 1980. The percentage of stovetop fires is on the rise and there is a solution.

As leaders, we're required to look ahead of the troops to make sure we're all headed in the right direction. It doesn't matter how hard the troops on the ground work to cut the trail; if it's cut in the wrong direction, the troops won't get to where they want to go.

There are technology solutions to this community fire problem.

All combustibles have a unique temperature at which they ignite and continue to burn. We lump materials that have similar burning characteristics into classes; food, paper and cloth are examples of Class A materials, or common combustibles.

An electric burner on a typical electric range will heat to about 1,300-1,600 degrees F; common combustibles generally ignite and burn at about 700 degrees F. A temperature-control device that prevents the element from reaching these temperatures eliminates all stovetop fires, including cooking oil fires.

Lower-temperature cooking elements create two notable side effects. First, while cooking times are about the same as a ceramic smooth-top, there's about a 10% increase in cooking time over the modified electric-coil element. It takes about seven minutes to boil water on an electric stove; with a temperature-control device, it would take 42 seconds longer.

The second effect is in the energy savings. Tests and actual experience point to savings that vary around $20–50 annually per unit. Collectively, a community of 100,000 could save about $1.8 million in energy costs every year using temperature-limiting cooking elements.

For example, one device available as a simple retrofit is being installed in high-risk environments like college dorms, low-income housing and homes for the elderly. The device costs about $170 and a complete retrofit is around $225 per unit, including installation labor. If stove manufacturers had the vision and will to do so, such temperature-control devices could be installed during the manufacturing process, driving the cost of the safety device down even further.

The easiest and safest fire to fight is one that never happens. Through temperature control, we can significantly reduce the number of home fires we respond to each year. If citizens call the fire department for less than 5% of all stovetop fires and 156,000 stovetop fires are reported each year in the U.S., such a device could eliminate millions of fires each year in the U.S. alone. Additionally, we would prevent burn injuries and costly false alarms, achieve heightened firefighter safety, save energy, preserve residential properties and protect at-risk individuals.

Nationally, the fire service has worked hard to require fire-safe cigarettes and ban novelty lighters because they represent a significant community risk in terms of fire deaths, injuries and property loss. Unattended cooking fires must be our next destination in reducing our community risk. As fire service leaders, Noblesse Oblige!

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