Fire Safety In The Orthodox Jewish Community

Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob emails his list:

Dear Friend,

The horrific tragedy in Brooklyn last week has served as a catalyst for renewed interest in fire safety. Ensuring the safety of our families and homes is a fulfillment of the Torah mandate of “V’nishmartem Me’od L’nafshotechem”- “greatly guard your lives.”

Please read the following fire safety information and guidelines provided by our member Jeff Halpert, who is a fire protection engineer working for the Glendale Fire Department’s Fire Prevention Bureau, and a former volunteer firefighter in Montgomery County, MD.

One halachic point is that you may use a Shabbat clock for your “platte” so that it is not on while you’re sleeping (just be sure the timer is properly rated to handle the electrical load).

I also suggest that when you do your bedikah-checking for chametz, you make it a point to double check your smoke detectors (thank you to Ari Miller for the good idea).

Fire Safety Information and Guidelines by Jeff Halpert:
1. Smoke & CO Alarms: It is very important to have working Smoke Alarms and Carbon Monoxide Alarms. Smoke alarms are the cheapest and simplest fire protection you can put in your home. To get the most time to escape, smoke alarms must be installed where they belong (and not installed where they don’t belong)! Smoke alarms DO belong in every bedroom, in every hallway outside bedrooms, and at the base and top of stairs, with at least one on every floor. Larger spaces need more. Smoke alarms do NOT belong in or near kitchens, fireplaces, garages – these locations will cause false alarms. Being close to steam (such as just outside a bathroom with shower) could also cause unwanted alarms. Preferably, they should be interconnected so that if one activates, they all alarm so that the alarm can be heard throughout the house. Often you just cannot hear a smoke alarm that is a floor away. Carbon monoxide alarms are a more recent requirement in California, and are required in residences wherever there is any fossil-fuel burning equipments (such as natural gas for heating, cooking, etc.) or if there is an attached garage. They also need to be properly located (following the manufacturer’s guidelines is the best advice).

2. Escape Plan: When the alarm sounds, you only have a minute or two. That is not the time to figure out what to do and is why an escape plan is so important. Know what to do, and practice it so you can do it FAST. In short – because smoke typically goes up towards the ceiling, you want to stay low, crawling on your hands and knees. Always feel a door before opening it (with the BACK of your hand). Brace yourself behind the door to use it as a shield to check before leaving through it. Have two escape paths in case the main path is not tenable. If you can’t get out, shelter-in-place, and protect yourself from smoke infiltration by trying to seal up the door. Doors make GREAT fire barriers- keep them closed and close them behind you to confine fire and smoke. Have a meeting place designated outside (pick a neighbor’s house to meet your family members), and please do not re-enter your house. As soon as you can safely do so, call 9-1-1.

Also, security being a concern, we may have burglar bars on our windows. Did you know that a window in a bedroom is required to be an emergency escape path? Burglar bars on sleeping room windows are required to be able to be opened from the inside in case of fire. Without it, you could be trapping yourself in a fire.

If your sleeping rooms are on an upper floor, there are products on the market to help you escape through a window and climb down to the ground. Escape ladders come in a variety of types. If you think you would benefit from these, I suggest you research them first, and most importantly, practice using them.

3. Use Safe Appliances: As evidenced by the tragedy in Brooklyn, appliances can cause fires, as can the electrical system in the home. For our safety, there are testing laboratories that test nearly everything we use for safety. Underwriters Laboratories (UL) is one such organization. Just like we look for a reliable hechsher on our food, we should check our appliances for a UL label, or other equivalent, such as Factory Mutual (FM). When cords are damaged or frayed, we should not use them. Extension cords and multi-plug adapters – must be used safely and only as designed and intended. Clothes dryers are a common source of fire – actually not the dryers themselves but the lint build up in the ventilation duct. Always clean out the lint each time you use your dryer, and try to have the duct cleaned once a year.

4. Things that can burn (combustibles) should be kept a safe distance away from heat sources. Therefore, napkins, food containers, newspapers, and the like, should not be close to a blech, a heater, a stove. Anything that can heat or burn should be kept away from children’s reach. Ask your children where the matches are and I guarantee you they will know! Teach your children that matches are tools and not toys, and they can hurt them (just like any tool, only adults should handle tools, but toys are for children to play with). Make sure that your Shabbat candles are NOT placed on a table which has a tablecloth that can be pulled by a toddler. Keep Shabbat candles in safe places – on non-combustible surfaces, far from an edge, away from combustibles, and in a place that IF they were to fall, would not cause a fire (like in a tray, or on a counter with plenty of space around them).

There are a lot of resources available to learn more, such as the National Fire Protection Association, the United States Fire Administration, your local fire departments, the State Fire Marshals website, insurance companies, etc. While over 3,000 people die in fires in the US each year (it’s been getting a little better with deaths decreasing), and 30,000 people injured, 80% of these occur in residential settings – the very places we should feel safest! It’s ironic but it doesn’t have to be that way. As Benjamin Franklin said, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure; it truly is, and can save a life. Nobody ever thinks it will happen to them. PLEASE, take fire safety seriously.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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