What are the principal fire and life safety hazards associated with electricity?

There are three major hazard patterns found in electrical products: fires caused by circuit overloads and poor electrical connections (such as those caused by worn or frayed wires coming together); shocks involving current flowing through the human body; and, finally, remote Auxiliary Power Units or APU's, which people sometimes forget to disable before working on lines and in some emergency situations (merely turning off power at the circuit breaker or fuse box is NOT enough!).

We've seen and heard terms like, "amps, watts, and volts," but we have no idea what they mean. Can you explain these in language we can understand?

"Amps" or "amperes" refers to the amount of current that flows through a wire. This current can hurt or even kill you.

"Volt" refers to the force that pushes the current along the wire. The high-voltage from a power plant is reduced to about 120 volts for most home circuits.

"Ohm" is the measure of resistance to the flow of current. The human body, especially when wet, has low resistance and easily conducts electric current.

"Watt" is the electrical power or rate of using a certain number of amperes pushed by a number of volts. The formula is watts = volts x amperes.

How does electricity work in our home?

Electricity enters your home through lines from the outside. An incoming line is broken down into separate smaller lines to service the various areas of your home. These lines are protected by electrical boxes which keep too much electricity from going through them. The most common electrical box is a circuit breaker, which has individual switches for each line in the home. When a line has too many electrical appliances on it, the switch for that line shuts off. The appliances must be unplugged until the line is no longer overloaded. The circuit breaker is then reset. It's important to know the location of your electrical boxes because, in the event of a fire, the electricity should be shut off.

What's the difference between electric shock and electrocution?

Most people are aware that when they touch something electrical with wet hands, a shock will result. Shock is the sudden stimulation of the nerves and muscles spasms caused by electricity traveling through the body. It feels like a tingling or buzzing within the body. Sometimes, the part of the body affected will feel numb or will shake uncontrollably.

Electrocution is an electric shock large enough to kill a person by jolting his heart and body so badly that they will no longer function. A person who is electrocuted will die very quickly if he does not get help immediately.

What safety precautions are recommended by the Fire Department in order to help avoid accidents and fires involving electrical equipment?

Frayed or worn electrical wiring should be replaced. They're fire-starters!

Periodically check cords on electrical appliances and equipment to make sure that they're not worn, frayed or exposing bare wires.

Do not run cords under carpets, rugs, or furniture. This breaks down the protecting insulation and can lead to a fire.

Extension cords should be used only as a last resort. They should never be overloaded with other extension cords or too many appliances.

Do not use high-wattage light bulbs in outlets and lamps not designed to handle these higher wattages. Additionally, don't use larger or three-way bulbs in smaller desk lamps, etc., the light socket, lamp fixture, cord, and even the shade may not be designed to handle the amount of heat produced by the larger bulb.

Don't take chances with malfunctioning electrical items. Unplug them and either have them repaired or replaced.

When a cord is required to carry more of an electrical load than it was designed to do safely, it starts to heat up. The heat causes the cord's insulation to deteriorate; and, over a period of time, the deterioration worsens until the insulation eventually fails completely, causing a spark and fire. Because extension cords are so dangerous, only those with the proper length and size to accommodate the amount of the electrical load should be used. In general, the higher the motor horsepower, amps, and wattage, the shorter and heavier the cord should be.

Don't use extension cords or three-way plugs as a means of accommodating larger electrical loads than those for which your home was originally designed. Consult a licensed electrician about rewiring options.

Remember, never use water to extinguish a fire involving energized electrical equipment. Only a multipurpose fire extinguisher or baking soda should be used - unless the equipment or appliance has been unplugged. Then, using water will no longer pose the threat of electrocution.

What do we need to know about natural gas?

Natural gas does not pose a safety problem unless unburned gas is allowed to escape. When this happens, not only will it pose a threat to your life by making breathing difficult, but it will also present an explosion danger, as well. Even the tiniest spark from a light switch (being turned either on or off) or pilot light could set off a violent explosion if there's gas escaping. Natural gas actually has no odor, the unique smell that warns us of a possible gas leak is added in order that we may detect leaks in time to take appropriate action.

What should we do if we smell a gas leak in our home?

Get everyone out of the house immediately and open all windows and doors. Call the Gas Company's emergency number from a neighbor's phone.

Don't touch light switches, operate electrical equipment, machinery (vehicles included), light matches or cigarettes, etc.

If a major earthquake has occurred and you smell gas leaking, use a crescent wrench to shut off the valve at the meter. If however, you do not smell a gas leak, do not attempt to shut off the gas. You should never try to restart your gas after shutting it off; this must be done by the Gas Company.

Each fall, before the cold weather starts, it's a good idea to have Gas Company personnel check out your home for possible carbon monoxide leaks, gas leaks, etc. also, you may want to ask them about the new earthquake gas shut-off valves now being made available to the public. Don't ever take chances with natural gas. Act immediately.