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Kitchen fires can be snuffed out

Many gerontologists attribute their career choice to a loved older person who played an important role in their lives. A striking number have been raised by grandparents; others have been influenced in a positive way through a special relationship.

I ran into one such young woman at a professional meeting. Over coffee one evening, she told me the story of losing her grandmother through a preventable kitchen fire. I promised I would write a column on fire safety, in honor of her grandmother and the more than 1,300 Americans 65 and older who die each year in fires.

Q. I'm trying to convince my mother that it's a fire hazard for her to wear her bathrobe while she cooks her morning oatmeal, but she won't listen. Can you help?

A. At any age, it is safer to wear short sleeves than long sleeves while cooking. But the grim fact is that 70 percent of those who die each year in clothing-related fires are over 65. Dangling sleeves can too easily burst into flame if they brush a burner. Long sleeves also tend to catch on pot handles, which can overturn and lead to scalds. Take your mother out for breakfast and present her with a newer, safer, non-flammable and short-sleeved bathrobe. Give her this note:

Dear Mother: Please, please, please never wear loose or flammable clothing around a stovetop.

Q. What should I do if a pan of food catches fire?

A. Carefully slide a lid on it and turn off the burner. Do not use flour to put out a fire _ it can explode. Never throw water on a grease fire. You may be able to smother a small fire with baking soda or a home fire extinguisher. If they don't work, leave the kitchen and call the fire department immediately.

Q. What are emergency numbers to call in case of a fire?

A. Call 9-1-1 immediately. Then get out.

Q. What are typical fire risks in the kitchen?

A. Two of the worst kitchen pitfalls are using pans on burners larger than the pans and leaving food unattended on the stove or in the oven.

Q. What are some ways to prevent scorched pots and charred, boiled-over pans?

A. Scorches and spills that can lead to fires most often occur because a "brief" departure from the kitchen turns into an extended stay. If you must leave the kitchen to answer the phone or the doorbell, turn off the burners. If that's not an option, take a pot holder or a cooking spoon with you. Your kitchen implement will help you remember to check the food on the stove or in the oven.

Q. How can you keep grease from building up on stove burners?

A. Clean cooking areas frequently.

Q. How can you remember to unplug the coffee pot or turn off the oven before bed?

A. Until you develop a habit of unplugging or turning off appliances that heat up, use stick-up notes on the mirror or doors.

Q. Can you suggest first aid for a kitchen burn?

A. The best immediate treatment for a kitchen burn is to submerge it in cool water. Skin burned by flame, steam, hot water or hot grease continues to "cook" after exposure, so you need to cool it down right away. Do not apply grease or butter _ these just help the burn cook! Do not put the burned skin under high-pressure, rapidly running water, as this could cause the burned skin to break.

Q. Should a kitchen be equipped with a fire extinguisher?

A. Yes, if the homeowner has been properly trained in its use. Check with your fire department about training in how to use it.

Q. What's the best place in the home to install a smoke detector?

A. A home should have a smoke detector on every floor and outside every bedroom.

Q. I am 84, live alone and am recovering from a broken hip. Will the fire department help me install my new smoke detectors?

A. Call your fire department's fire prevention office to see if a representative can install them for you.

Q. Are there any programs that provide financial assistance for the purchase of smoke detectors?

A. Fire departments often have programs to help with this. Check with your fire department.

_ Helen Susik is a gerontologist with Suncoast Gerontology Center at the University of South Florida in Tampa. You can write to her c/o Seniority, the Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.