(CNN) — The nation’s top firefighter is calling for everyone to get down to work to save lives and educate Americans on heater safety this winter.
This Sunday, New York City suffered one of the worst fires in its history, when a heater malfunction in a bedroom caused a fire in a Bronx apartment in which 17 people died, including eight children.
Although the incident was notably tragic, it was one of many fires attributed to space heaters.
On average, fires caused by portable heaters cause 65 deaths and 150 injuries a year, according to Lori Moore-Merrell, administrator of the United States Fire Administration. Here are six factors that fire experts say can make a difference when it comes to staying warm and safe with a heater.
1. Place it at least one meter from anything flammable
The number one cause of heaters catching fire is placing them too close to flammable objects, according to Moore-Merrell.
It is a source of heat, so placing a unit near something that could catch fire, be it a sofa, curtains or papers, poses a fire risk, he added.
It’s also important to keep the heater on a flat, stable surface, said Houston Fire Department spokesman Martee Boose.
2. Don’t leave it unattended
It makes sense that you want the heat to keep running throughout the cold weather, but with heaters it’s a big risk, experts said.
When you can’t pay attention to the heater, either because you’re sleeping or because you’re out of the bedroom, you should turn it off, Moore-Merrell said.
“That’s not always a nice thing to hear, especially when it’s as cold as it is now,” Moore-Merrell said. “We could think of it as a candle. You don’t leave a candle burning when you leave the room, and the same goes for heaters.”
3. Keep them out of the reach of children and pets
Just as you don’t leave a candle within the reach of children or curious pets, so do space heaters, according to Moore-Merrell.
Boose recommends keeping the heater elevated where children or pets cannot accidentally burn themselves.
If you’ve ever had a cat, you know there are few places they can’t get to. In homes with feline acrobats, Boose suggested placing a barrier around the heater that can keep them out while allowing for ventilation.
4. Plug directly into the outlet
Aside from contact with flammable objects, a big fire risk is the use of surge protectors with a space heater, Boose said.
“If you plug it directly into the wall, you know it’s rated for that outlet,” Boose said. A surge protector may not be equipped to handle the power needed for the heater, and it can cause a fire if overwhelmed, Boose said.
5. Make sure you have a working smoke and carbon monoxide alarm
Even with all possible care, sometimes things can go wrong. The first line of defense, Boose said, is to keep fire alarms working.
It’s important to test your fire and carbon monoxide alarms every month to make sure they’re working, Boose said. You also have to check and change the batteries. Carbon monoxide is colorless and odorless, but it can be dangerous, which means it can be hard to tell when it’s harming those in the house.
Carbon monoxide can be a big concern in the winter months. People without central heating often try to keep warm by using their oven, sitting in their car, or turning on their grills, all of which Boose said they shouldn’t do because it’s dangerous.
6. Watch for signs of malfunction
Fortunately, newer heaters often have safety features that cause them to shut off when they’re not working properly, Moore-Merrell said, but older models don’t.
“We have no way of knowing where these older devices are,” he added.
An important sign to pay attention to is the color of the flames on gas heaters. A blue flame is normal, but an orange flame means it is not working properly and should be put out immediately, Boose said.
Staying warm in winter is important for both safety and comfort, and for some people heaters may be the best way to achieve this. Taking precautions and using them properly can add another layer of comfort, knowing that you are being as safe as possible.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism