Monday, May 4, 2015

Protecting Your Home From Fire

While a fireplace or woodstove can be peaceful, an out of control fire in the home is one of the most frightening things anyone can imagine.  I had a candle set the wall screen on fire in my bedroom 35 years ago, and almost got burnt up. That left me with a lifelong concern and vigilance about the risk of fire.  With the arrival of spring, I thought I’d you some constructive advice on how to protect yourself and your home from fire.

You do not want this to be you
Most articles about fire protection focus on keeping hazards out of the home – don’t smoke in bed, don’t smoke when you are drunk, make sure candles are in safe enclosures, etc.  That’s all good advice and I won’t repeat it further here.  Instead I’m going to focus on what happens when a fire has started, for whatever the reason.

Your first concern is obviously getting your family and pets to a safe location. Your next concern is protecting your property, while also staying safe yourself.  That presents a catch-22.  For you to be completely safe you need to be 100 feet back from the house, from which remove all you can do is watch your home burn as you wait for the fire trucks.

Professional fire fighters say you should get out, stay out, and let the professionals do their job.  That's surely the best way to save lives.  But for many of us, the property that is at risk in a fire is valuable.  And if the fire department is far away, we must either act to protect our interests, or watch what we have burn.  

If you go in and fight the fire, you place yourself at risk, but if you do it quickly, and do it smartly, your risk is minimized and your chances of extinguishing the fire are actually far greater than the odds of the fire department doing it for you.  When I say that I’m not disrespecting the fire department, I am just pointing out that fires grow exponentially in their first minutes and a kitchen fire may 100 times more difficult to put out five minutes after it started.  After 15 minutes it probably will not be extinguishable without the total loss of the home. 

Yet that is the best response time we can home for from our public servants.  They have to answer the call, load and start the truck, and then drive several miles to reach you.  Once there, the hoses have to be unloaded and deployed, and hydrant hookups made.  Even the fastest firemen need time to do those things.  In most cities the fire department will not be spraying water on your house for at least 10 minutes after your phone call.  In the country, that number may triple.  If you care about protecting your property, even five minutes is probably too long.  You need to act seconds after discovery, and act decisively.

You must also act fast because a fire in the house will fill it with smoke, and you can become incapacitated or disoriented.  If the house is already full of smoke, all you can do is get out.  Most people who die in fires are killed by smoke and gases.  If the house fills up, get out.

How do you fight fire and win?  You use a combination of early detection then tools, extinguishers, and water.  Sounds simple, but the sad truth is that most home owners have near-zero ability to suppress a fire in the home, and many can’t even detect fire until far too late. You must also act fast because a fire in the house will fill it with smoke, and you can become incapacitated or disoriented.  

Small extinguishers like this can be kept in key spots round the house.  
The biggest risk in most homes is kitchen fires.  In our house, we keep small kitchen extinguishers (see photo) on both sides of the stove.  If you get a flash fire, those extinguishers and a lid for the burning pot will bring most fires under control very fast.  If that does not appear to be enough – for example, if burning oil were to spread onto the floor – I keep a 6 liter 20pound liquid filled restaurant extinguisher hanging 5 steps away in the garage entry.  An extinguisher of that size – meant for use in commercial kitchens with 80-200lb deep fat fryers - should suppress any normal residential kitchen fire if caught before the structure starts to burn.

A 6 liter liquid filled kitchen fire extinguisher

The key – and I cannot stress this enough – is acting fast.  If you are in the kitchen, and a fire starts, yell out the alarm and grab the extinguishers, aim and fire.  Do not hesitate, because once flames reach up into the ceiling or back into the walls your house may be doomed.

A wise person will have extinguishers close at hand in all places where they may be in time of need.  In our house that means we have them in the kitchen, the bedrooms, and the garage entryways.  We have flashlights in all those places too, in case we have to fight a fire when the power is out.

Headlamp, flashlight, work light.  Keep them close at hand, in bedroom, kitchen, garage
We keep small extinguishers in the house, and bigger units in the garage.  The logic is simple – the little units are inoffensive and easy to handle.    And you don’t need much in the fire’s first seconds.  If they are not enough, the big boys are just inside the garage.  Out there I keep several 20lb units with the knowledge that one may not be enough, and there will be no second chances if they are needed.

Which would you rather risk – $150 for extinguishers or $300,000 for a new home?

Extinguishers are rated by capacity and types of fires.  Kitchen units are Type K, and they are meant to suppress grease fires on hot commercial kitchen appliances.  Some would say that’s overkill in the home but in my opinion, when putting out fires, there is no such thing. 

General purpose extinguishers are usually filled with dry chemical, and rated for A, B, and C fire.  A type A fire is wood, paper, or trash.  Or the house itself.   Type A is best suppressed with water once it gets going.

Type B and C are flammable liquid fires and electrical fires, respectively.  A gasoline or grease fire is a type B fire.  A good 10lb dry chemical extinguisher is rated 4A, 60BC.  That means is can put out a trash fire of 4 square feet, or a 60 square foot pool of burning gasoline.  Most people are surprised to read that it’s harder to put out a trash fire than a gas fire, but it’s often true.

If you have a risk of liquid fires and high value property – like burning gasoline in a collector car – consider keeping a 20lb CO2extinguisher on hand.  Those units are effective against gas fires and they cool the surfaces to prevent re-flash.  Best of all, they leave no residue.  Every collector car garage should have at least one such unit.

If you are really serious about this, and you live in the country, you may also want to look at fire suppression grenades. These devices are thrown into a burning room, where they discharge a mist that cools the room and interrupts the chemical reactions necessary to sustain fire.  They can be astonishingly effective, as this video shows.  One big benefit of the grenade is that you can safely throw it into a smoke filled room that you could not otherwise enter, and there's good chance it will knock down or put out the fire all by itself. 

Do not look for extinguishers like these at chain stores or the mall.  Look at industrial supplies places like Grainger, or local fire equipment suppliers - businesses that serve gas stations and restaurants.  Get the real stuff because your life will depend on it, if it’s ever needed.  If there is doubt about size get the biggest thing you can easily maneuver. There is no such thing as a fire extinguisher that was too big, unless it’s so big you can’t get it where you need it.

The extinguishers I’ve described will suppress most fires in a house, until the structure starts burning.  An example would be if a candle tips over on a sofa, and you do not notice till the sofa is engulfed in flame.  At that point you have one chance – suppress with water spray, fast.  You can knock down a pretty big furniture fire fast hitting it with heavy water mist at the base.

With that in mind, I keep 200 feet of hose coiled on a big hook under the deck, connected and ready to turn on.  That is enough hose to reach our backyard fireplace (150 feet across the yard) and also to reach most anywhere within the house.   There is a backup hose with another 200 feet of hose on the side of the house.  Either one should be sufficient to put out a burning sofa and many other interior fires that have not yet grown out of control.  Fire departments use much larger hoses to suppress fires fast, but once again timing is of the essence.  A single hose will extinguish a blasé at its inception while two pump trucks and six men on hoses will struggle to contain it, once it gets going.

If you are building a home you can take other steps like raising the ceilings (ours are all 10-15 feet) and using fire resistant sheetrock.  You can also install sprinkler fire suppression.  None of those things are available at reasonable cost to people with existing homes.

What about the roof catching fire, as with lightning or a chimney fire?  I keep ladders under the deck, and they would be the only way to suppress a fire from a lightning strike at the outset.  Waiting 10 minutes for a fire truck in that circumstance generally means the loss of the house.

The next issue is detection, and that is vital. If you don't see a fire start, you have to rely on detectors.  We have a fairly large house, and I had all rooms and halls wired with central station smoke detectors.  Central station means the system calls a dispatch center as well as ringing a bell in the house.  I have monitors in the bedroom and at the entrances that will announce which zone is in alarm.  If you don’t have a system like this the next best thing is standalone smoke detectors, which need to be in all rooms to be useful.

The fire code does not call for detectors in every space, but that is obviously the one and only way to get fast warning.  Remember to put detectors around the furnace and in the attic.

The tips described above should be “good enough” to protect you if you are home and awake.  What if you are asleep?  First of all, sleep with the bedroom doors closed and be sure there are smoke detectors that work in the hall.  That way, you get an alarm while your bedroom is still full of clear air (unless the fire starts in your bedroom.)  Make sure there is a means of getting out of the house from each bedroom.  In our house we have large windows in 4 of the bedrooms and a door to the deck in the master.  So exit is easy and safe.  If your bedrooms are on an upper floor you should have some means of exiting that will really work. The fire safety ladders that many people buy don’t generally work.  Try climbing one some time and you will see why – unless the ladder had standoffs and weight at the bottom, you won’t be able to put your feet in.  In a panic, you will likely fall.  The solution is to get a high grade rope ladder, or a quickly deployable aluminum unit. You also need to be sure you can actually exit via the windows.

The next thing to consider is night, which is when many fires happen.  With that in mind, I strongly suggest you have portable lights in every bedroom.  I recommend Streamlight Stinger C4 rechargeable.  Many police departments use these.  They are very bright, water and shock proof, and when charged they will run for hours.   For most homeowners a good flashlight is a far smarter investment that a gun, and one that is sure to be useful.  I also have larger battery lights that I can use if the power fails (a time of heightened risk)

If you are going in to fight a fire a headlamp is a great thing to have too.  Petzl is a good brand with NAO being their most powerful unit as of this writing (May 2015) Black Diamond is another good brand, and Streamlight also makes commercial headlamps.

The second thought relates to clothing.  I’m going to assume you do not have specialist fireproof clothes quick at hand.  If you have to exit a burning home you are safer running out naked rather than running through flames in synthetic nightwear. The synthetics will stick to you if they burn, with really nasty result.  If you wear clothes, wear cotton, which you can wet for safety.  If you wear gloves, use leather, not synthetics for the same reason.  Wear leather boots, not synthetic too.

If you decide to follow those suggestions, do one more thing:  buy extinguishers for all your cars too.   Everything I suggested will cost under $1,000 which is a comparatively trivial cost for such protection.

All my life, I have looked to my own resources for defense and protection.  So far, it’s worked.  It can work for you too.  Fire departments are great for big fires, and slow moving fires.  But they are of little help if you want to avoid widespread ruin after a home fire starts.  Protect yourself effectively, and you won’t even need to call them.

Hunter Thompson said it well.  “There is one rule in this house.  Never, ever, call 911.”  Look after yourself.


Saturday, April 4, 2015

Should Autism be Celebrated?

The James River shoreline, near Williamsburg, VA (c) John Elder Robison

Autism is a neurological difference that’s associated with some gifts and a great many disabilities.  For a person to be diagnosed on the autism spectrum, they must have significant impairments as a result of autism.  We may have gifts too, but disability remains the basis for diagnosis.  Some autistic people are rendered non-speaking by their condition, and I can’t imagine who would celebrate that.  Others live with significant medical compilations like epilepsy.  I’ve yet to meet anyone who celebrates that either.

At the same time, there is a growing body of evidence that autistic brain differences have facilitated some of mankind’s great accomplishments in music, engineering, science, theology and the arts.  The achievements are certainly worthy of admiration, but are the autism differences that facilitated them cause for celebration?  I guess that’s a matter of opinion.

I think neurological diversity is something to celebrate because different people do different things.  Ten typical people struggled to push a cart with skids, until an autistic guy showed them a wheel.  Without difference, our species would have come to an end long ago.  It’s diversity that gives us the species ability to cope with an ever-shifting world.

They say Newton was autistic, and his calculus is part of the foundation of the modern technical world.  Do we celebrate the tool, or the different mind it came from?  In today’s world the creator of Pokémon says he’s on the spectrum.  Do we celebrate that, or his accomplishment?  All around you, there are autistic people with exceptional skills and talents.  At the same time, there are autistic people crippled or limited by their autism.  It’s hard to reconcile the dichotomy of that.

I think autistic people – as a group - are worthy of celebration.  In American society we set aside periods for celebration of all sorts of people – women, African Americans, cancer survivors, and more.  Autistics are just as deserving of celebration as any other group, and in some ways more so because of our persistence in the face of marginalization and mistreatment. And because we’ve brought society many cool things.

But I personally don’t see this month as a time of celebration.  I see it as a time when autism is in the news, and in the public mind, and as a result, we build awareness and acceptance in the general public. 

We hope a more aware public will treat us better, and provide more assistance and accommodation.  A more aware public might understand why we behave differently and respond more appropriately in many situations.  Readers of my books have told me that, and I’ve heard the same said to other autistic authors. 

That’s a good thing.  The only downside to that kind of awareness is when autism is depicted in an unrealistic way – as devoid of disability – because that makes an ignorant public think we don’t need supports and services, when in fact we do. That’s a sad truth about our society.  The more eloquently a person is able to articulate their needs, the less support they are deemed to need.  We must always be conscious of that, when we talk about autism.

What about autism acceptance?  That’s the thing many autistic self-advocates focus on this month.  If you believe autism has been part of humanity forever then acceptance is the only point of view that makes sense.  If you believe in the value of human diversity, autism is as much a part of that as red hair. You may like parts of it, and you may hate parts of it, but it’s here to stay and you best accept that.

Always remember that accepting autistic people does not equal accepting autistic suffering or disability.  Many fine people devote their lives to relieving suffering in our population, whether through addressing medical issues like intestinal distress or by helping us make friends or find jobs.  That work is an admirable accompaniment to acceptance.

To do anything but accept, embrace, and support autistic people is simply mean.  It’s wrong. We did not ask to be how we are.  You may see us as different, but from our perspective, it’s the typical population who’s different. Every human has that right to acceptance, and we are no exception.  We bring great gifts to humanity by being here, and there’s a cost to have us.  Just as there’s a cost for every other human on the planet.

So what would I ask for this month? Volunteering at a local autism program can truly change lives.  Get involved in research as a volunteer or advisor. Stand up for autistic people in government.  Studies have shown that 100 dedicated people at the state house can absolutely move the positions of legislators.  Make friends with autistic people, and cultivate the relationships you already have.  There are a million things you can do that truly make a difference.

Make life better for autistic people.  Call that celebration, call it advocacy, but do something real.  That’s my best wish and advice for this April, whatever you want to call it.

John Elder Robison

Monday, March 9, 2015

Dangers of Genetic Engineering in the Forest

NEW JERSEY MAN KILLED IN QUEBEC MAPLE SUGAR EXPLOSION – that is a headline you will never see, but tragedies like that happen every year. Yet the news is suppressed because no one wants to kill the cash cow.  The result: one unsuspecting innocent after another gives their life for tourism, as dollars make a one-way trip across the US-Canada border. 

 Quebec officials boast that they are the #1 producer of maple sugar and syrup.  “Vermont is a distant #2,” they say derisively.  Meanwhile rumors swirl.  Are they injecting maple growth hormone into their trees? How do they do it?  I don’t have the answer.  All I know is that maples are said to be exploding when tapped, and the jagged wood makes deadly shrapnel.  Arborists say it’s excess sap pressure, but who really knows?

What about the safety of the syrup?  I’ll take good old organic maple any day.  I don’t wear blood diamonds and I don’t eat MGH-enhanced blood syrup.  Who wants to eat maple candies that some poor farmer died to harvest?

Vermont says they have not had a maple sugaring fatality in years, but who knows if that's true? Recent accounts suggest Canadian maple sugar farms are littered with jagged stumps where proud trees once stood.  Ask what happen and the answers are vague.  Lightning, vandalism, or crazed loggers. 

The season is upon us, folks.  Know your syrup.  Be careful around the trees.  There’s a good reason forest peoples don’t sleep under tree branches.  Don’t find out the hard way.  

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Autism in India and America

What’s the most interesting difference between Indian autism and American autism?  I think it’s the way parents and others perceive it.

Indian and American scientists both lament the low level of scientific understanding in their respective countries.  What’s interesting is how that affects people’s interpretation of autism.

In American we have a secular culture of blame.  “Someone did me wrong” is an all-pervasive theme in our culture.  We interpret everything from the behavior of other countries to the conduct of ex-spouses through that lens.

When it comes to “interpreting autism,” that thinking has spawned toxic notions like, “mercury poisoned my kid,” “vaccine took the light out of his eyes,” and “big pharma conspiracy.”  To many who hold such beliefs, the idea of natural causes or no real cause at all is beyond the pale.

India, on the other hand, has a highly spiritual culture of acceptance.  That permeates Indian society and it’s part of what makes that country so different from our own.

When it comes to autism, people seem much more likely to attribute it to the work of one deity or another. Or it’s the result of actions in a past life.  Or it “just is.”  The difference between those thoughts and American blame is significant. 

Obviously scientists and autism specialists in both countries may have very different ideas of autism’s causes, but the average person in the street does not – in either country. And this is about them, not the science and professional communities (which are in many ways very similar.)

If you’re a spiritual person, you don’t question what is to the degree secular Americans question everything.  In India, that applies to many things – not just autism.  When you visit India, you can’t help being struck by the poverty all around.  With hundreds of millions of people living on a dollar or two a day, and no resources to materially change that situation, there seems to be little alternative to acceptance. 

My short time in India suggests that we Americans can learn something from Indians.  Their spiritual acceptance feels a lot healthier than our blaming.  When you deal with a situation like autism – something that “is, and will remain” – acceptance is a healthier place than anger and blame.

I can say that in America and it often unleashes a fresh round of anger.  In India, they just smile and nod.

What do you think?