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Electric Heater WARNING!

Posted by chrisbaulman on 28/05/12
By Paul Cleary
The Australian

IT takes less than three minutes for a domestic heater to create a fatal fire, yet governments refuse to regulate cheap appliances that take lives across Australia year in, year out.

In the three months of winter, Australia's frontline firefighters see almost half of the 100 or so house-fire deaths each year, and the causes of this tragic loss of life are predictably the same.

Typically, winter fires involve low-income families living in cramped and often cluttered homes filled with dangerous appliances and highly flammable furnishings. Far too often, the victims are children.

So it was in August last year when a fire ignited gas cylinders and gutted the home of three Pacific Islander families in the Brisbane suburb of Slacks Creek, killing 11 people. Eight of the victims were 18 or younger, and three were less than 10. The survivors recently moved into a new home built with corporate and union support that includes 11 fence pillars and a row of 11 trees to commemorate the lost lives.

The first home-fire fatalities of this year involved very young children and a dangerous chimney.

In March, Georgia Griffin-Wilson, 8, and brother Kaden, 3, had just moved into a rented farmhouse with their parents near the western Victoria town of Dunkeld.

After a cold snap, the parents lit a fire in a slow-combustion burner, which in the early hours of the morning ignited debris that had accumulated around the flue, Victorian police believe.

The parents awoke but were unable to reach their children, who died in an inferno so intense it completely destroyed the home and surrounding buildings.

Veteran firefighters such as Station Officer Simon Flynn of Marrickville Fire Station in Sydney's inner-west are asking why state governments aren't taking action when the causes are so obvious and our homes are filled with increasingly flammable furniture.

He thinks governments should phase out dangerous appliances such as bar radiators, the cause of many of the fatal fires he has attended in his 28-year career. But this is a view not shared by his fire service.

Flynn, 48, has spent three decades in the inner suburbs of Sydney, where he has seen how house fires discriminate against the poor.

The deadly house fires he has attended typically involved "a lot of poor people" who buy cheap and hazardous heaters, and who often live in cluttered rental accommodation. "All my time has been in the inner west. I have seen some pretty horrific things -- an awful lot of bedroom fires," Flynn says.

He argues that it is low-income earners who buy cheap radiators, or bar heaters, which are expensive to run and " should be getting phased out". Smoking in bed, electric blankets, and candles are other causes of these fires.

Bar radiators can be bought for as little as $20 at discount chains. They are light and portable and so flammable you can use them to light a cigarette.

Fire service authorities say better alarms are essential and are pushing for more effective "photoelectric" fire alarms to be made mandatory in the national building code, so far without success. The vast majority of alarms installed in Australia, known as ionisation alarms, work only when fires begin burning, not when they are smouldering, says Rob Llewellyn, the manager of community safety for the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council.

The need for stronger regulation is underscored by the results of a recent experiment conducted jointly by the CSIRO and Fire and Rescue NSW, which looked at how a modern bedroom burned compared with one with bedding from the 1950s.

Set alight by identical incendiaries, the modern bedding led to the room being engulfed in less than two minutes, while the 1950s room was still smouldering.

NSW Nationals MP Andrew Fraser speaks from experience when he calls for bar heaters to be banned. In 2008 his daughter was badly burnt when a heater caught fire in the family's Coffs Harbour home, causing the house to be almost burnt to the ground in a matter of minutes. "From my own experience, I'd say ban them. I won't have them in my house," he says.

This experience taught Fraser and his family that "the most flammable room is the bedroom", as mattresses, pillows and quilts burn quickly.

Not that the NSW Coalition governmentof which Fraser is a part agrees. A spokesman for the Minister for Consumer Affairs, Anthony Roberts, focused on the government's role as an educator, rather than a regulator. He said the Department of Fair Trading issued warnings every winter about the safe use of heaters and maintained a webpage about the safety of electric room heaters.

Despite the emphasis on education, state police services also seem slow to raise the alarm about the causes of deadly fires as they occur. Forensic teams from state police keep the findings of their investigations confidential until they report to a coronial inquest, which could take place a year or two after the event.

This is done even when the findings could inform the public about potential dangers.

In the case of the Slacks Creek fire, the Queensland police service has refused to release any preliminary findings. A spokesman for the service said forensic experts were still preparing their report for the coroner.

"We never give out that kind of detailed information until we have given it to the coroner," he says. "We have laws against giving that sort of information out."

But a friend of one of the survivors said the police had told the family about the cause of the blaze last month.

Victoria Police initially declined to release the results of its investigation into the Dunkeld fire, as a spokeswoman said this could not be done before the inquest. But when asked if some background information could be obtained, the force agreed to allow a forensic officer to comment.

Detective Leading Senior Constable Glen Hatton, from the arson squad, said the fire "appeared" to have been caused by material caught between the chimney and the flue of a slow-combustion fire, which ignited and set the ceiling on fire.

FRNSW's figures show "smoking materials" were the biggest cause of deaths over the past decade. They caused 17 per cent of the 272 fire fatalities in the state between 2000 and 2009, followed by heaters, which caused 11 per cent.

Despite this evidence, the only substantial regulation to reduce home fires in recent decades entails compulsory fire alarms.

State governments don't require home owners and landlords to regularly clean chimneys. Nor do they mandate fire blankets in kitchens, where nearly half of all house fires start (though these fires are not as deadly as those in bedrooms).

Unlike bushfires and floods, sporadic house fires fail to grab the attention of politicians; they don't lead to royal commissions that might trigger regulatory reform.

Even some state fire authorities, and their federal council, seem little concerned about the presence of potentially hazardous appliances in our homes.

The AFAC doesn't have a position on bar heaters or fire blankets, or on cleaning chimneys.

Llewellyn says, "I have not seen evidence that they (bar heaters) have caused numerous deaths."

Superintendent Ed Salinas from Fire and Rescue NSW also declined to say a bad word about bar radiators.

He said he was "not willing to make a judgment', adding such heaters were safe "if you don't put combustibles near them".

Nor would he insist on regulations to enforce regular cleaning of chimneys, adding that new ones were subject to relevant standards and old ones were made of double brick.

But Simon Flynn wants more done. He commands one of the four platoons at the Marrickville fire station in Sydney's inner west, a low-income area with a lot of rental housing. He's also worked in Redfern, which has many housing commission tenants.

One of the worst fires he has attended involved a bar heater that killed a father and two sons in Redfern, while another in Marrickville in 2005 that killed a man had the same cause.

"Legislation can lead to better fire-safety outcomes," says Flynn.

Bar radiators are not only hazardous, they are also very costly to run, which creates a bad outcome for the environment and the low-income resident. "Poor people in socioeconomically depressed areas buy them. The capital outlay is quote low; the running costs are quite high," he says.

He adds that these types of heaters are a major hazard because they are mobile and models that sit on the floor can be knocked over by a dog or a cat. "People using those bar heaters don't have their lives well organised," he says.

But the availability of these heaters is also a trap for educated professionals, who buy them simply because they are easily available. As the weather turned cold last May, a Sydney lawyer and father of two bought a 2400-watt bar radiator from a local Bing Lee store for his son, who was studying for Year 12 exams.

Just two days after it was bought, the heater set fire to bedding and quickly engulfed the room while the son was outside.

Flynn's C Platoon at the Marrickville Fire Station was on duty that afternoon and he and his four-man crew arrived at the scene in less than five minutes, just as the windows of the house were exploding.

This fire was "pretty damn dangerous; it had just flashed over", he says, meaning it had taken hold of the room and was starting to burn the ceiling.

Fire crews work with four men; two enter the inferno as one stays behind to turn off the power and send radio signals, while a fourth looks for a water main.

Fireman Perry Rennex, 38, entered the blaze with a hose from the engine which gave him and his mate, Andrew Kelly, just eight minutes' of water. Rennex and Kelly were able to bring the blaze under control and save the home.

The danger faced by fire crews, says Rennex, comes from the deadly combination of synthetic materials and old-fashioned heating. "The danger is radiant heat; it can quite easily catch things," he says. "Heaters are the big issue -- that is part of the reason why we are busier in winter."

While most people think they live in a safer world, "all the stuff we have inside is more flammable these days", he says.


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Recent Comments:

AlexBaumann      03/05/13
That time of year again. Brrrr