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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Grilling safety: With more use of barbecues and smokers, here’s how to prevent emergency calls

It’s finally barbecue season, and where there’s heat, there’s also risk of burns and fires.

The National Fire Protection Association estimates about 19,700 people go to hospital emergency rooms each year because of injuries involving barbecue grills. An average 10,600 home fires are started by grills each year. About 64% of U.S. households have at least one outdoor barbecue, grill or smoker, and gas grills contribute to more fires than charcoal grills.

Simple prevention steps can help people avoid those emergencies as the summer grilling season takes off, two local Fire Department leaders said. It can begin with adults and children recognizing the hazards around today’s barbecue equipment, even those that appear benign.

“A smoker is still hot enough to burn you if you touch it, and who hasn’t done that?” said Rick Freier, Spokane Valley Fire Department firefighter.

“The fact that smokers have increased, I think you’ll see more burns among children. When you have those devices, you really don’t see the fire because of where the fire box is. When you don’t see the fire, you don’t think it’s hot.”

Freier, also a department public information officer, teaches fire safety tips on social media and forensic fire investigation science to middle school students as “The Fire Science Guy.”

“I think everywhere you’re seeing an uptick in use of outdoor living spaces, so you’ll see that smokers have taken off dramatically, and outdoor grilling has taken off.”

He said it’s not uncommon for fire calls to come in when a propane barbecue’s burners are left on high, and a grease fire occurs because the grill wasn’t clean. “When we get there, nine times out of 10, a homeowner has caught it, turned off the gas and controlled it,” Freier said.

Jamie McIntyre, Spokane Fire Department’s community risk reduction manager, said she’s noticed the trend of more people spending time outdoors at home, while grilling also has increased. The department offers a grilling safety video.

“I know every year that we have fires or properties that are damaged from people not properly grilling or disposing of charcoal after they’ve grilled,” McIntyre said.

That brings up one of her first tips: After you’re done using charcoal, let coals completely cool and dispose of them in a metal container. This also prevents dumpster fires, she said.

“Maybe people who live in communal living spaces … haven’t paid attention to cooling coals properly, so we’ve had dumpster fires occur, like in apartment complexes,” McIntyre said.

“The metal container is good because that’s not going to melt with the coals in it, and it gives extra time to cool off. Then often it’s recommended to put water on them for an added precaution.”

Here are other safety tips for grilling and smoker equipment:

Do a safety check for leaks if you have a propane grill, and make sure it’s clean before turning it on, McIntyre said. To check leaks, the NFPA recommends applying a light soap and water solution to the hose of a propane grill before the first season’s use.

“A propane leak will release bubbles, so if it has bubbles or you are smelling gas, then you’ll want to take proper precautions and turn the grill off,” she said. “You’ll likely need to get it serviced by a professional before using it again. If you turn it off and the leak still doesn’t stop, that’s when you call the Fire Department.”

Keep a grill or smoker at a distance from a house, outdoor furniture or anything combustible. If you get a grease fire, it can get big enough to catch nearby items on fire, Freier said. “Have proper spacing; the manufacturer will have a recommendation. I know people don’t like to read directions, but they will tell you how far away it should be. But 10 feet is a good rule.

Treat every grill as though it’s hot, Freier said. “So, grab it by its appropriate handles. Get in the habit of doing that so you don’t touch a bad spot when it is hot.”

Shut down equipment properly when done and turn a propane tank off if using one, as a precaution, Freier added. “It actually happened in my barbecue; we put it in the garage after we were done. I forgot to shut the tank, and when I opened the door the next morning, I could smell the propane. It was leaking somewhere in the system, so as a safety precaution when you’re done cooking, make sure you turn your tank off.”

Be present, Freier said. “Any time you are cooking with an outdoor grill, whether it be charcoal, wood, gas or the smokers, you should be present. You should be there, because if something fails, that’s your time to shut it down. Make sure you stay there when you’re cooking, and make sure your equipment is clean.”

Don’t drink and grill. A study by ValuePenguin, a personal finance site that provides guidance, tools and research on topics from insurance to credit cards, found that 37% of Americans say they have barbecued while drunk, and those who have are four times as likely to have a grilling-related accident. “Wait to have your beer with your meal, not before,” Freier said.

Avoid common injuries. The study found that the number of people treated in emergency rooms for grilling-related injuries increased 18% in the past decade, and children younger than 10 made up the bulk of ER visits. Men were nearly twice as likely to be treated as women, and the most common problems were burns to the upper extremities. The study found 47% of grillers admit that they don’t clean the grill after every use, but responses jumped to nearly 60% for community grills.

Have a safety talk with your children as you would about any cooking surface, McIntyre said. “If you’re grilling or smoking items, you should have a kid-free zone around those cooking spaces. The NFPA recommends at least 3 feet, and it also recommends keeping pets away from there. I’ve seen on decks that people put a tape line, like maybe use masking tape or painter tape as a visual indicator for kiddos.

“Keep fire-starting tools away from kids, so have conversations about the dangers with fire as you’re using barbecue grills, and for the lighters, keep them away from kids and up in locked places,” he said.