Home, Sweet (and Safe) Home

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by Bryan Spitz

It’s a nightmare: there’s a fire in your home, and you don’t have a plan for getting out. Or your residence is robbed, and you’ve lost everything you’ve worked for here in Canada. In Toronto, there are more than one million dwellings, and almost two million in the GTA. According to Toronto Police statistics, during 2006, more than four thousand houses and five thousand apartments were robbed. In 2005, the Toronto Fire Department reported almost ten thousand fires.

By practicing good home safety and security, you can minimize these and other risks. As the popular Canadian saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” meaning that you should take steps to protect yourself from disasters rather than waiting for them to happen.

Safety is the same as prevention

Home safety covers everything from fire prevention to toy and crib safety for children and babies.
Let’s go over fire safety first. The Ontario Fire Code requires you to have working smoke detectors in your home. If your home has multiple levels, you should install a detector on each level, and one near or in each sleeping area, especially if you sleep with the door closed. Also, plan a fire escape route and make sure everyone in your household knows it well. Set a specific meeting place outside. If there is a fire, you can call the fire department from a neighbour’s home. In addition to smoke alarms, you have to install carbon monoxide detectors to verify the possible presence of this invisible, odorless, and highly toxic gas. According to Toronto Fire services, “Carbon monoxide poisoning is the number one cause of accidental poisoning deaths in North America.”

Poison prevention is another important area of home safety. Poisoning most often occurs with medication, household or car cleaning products, and personal care products but also with some plants (including some berries, seeds, bulbs or wild mushrooms); and, very rarely (especially in cities), because of one particular type of snake, the Eastern Mississauga Rattlesnake. It’s a very shy species and will back off from you for sure. To avoid them, listen to their rattle, stop, and slowly move away from the sound of the snake.

The half dozen rattlesnake bites in Ontario each year don’t really compare to the 46,000 children under the age of six who were poisoned in 2005 (43 per cent of all poisoning cases). So your obligation is to keep all possible toxic substances out of reach of little children and also teach them the “hazard symbols”, so they can learn to avoid these products. If you have trouble with poisoning, call the Ontario Poison Centre at 1-800 268-9017.

Sometimes a product is put on the market that is simply unsafe. Children are especially in danger from unsafe products, such as cribs and toys made with toxic materials. Health Canada maintains a list of warnings and advisories about unsafe products, so you should check the list periodically to make sure your home is safe for children.

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) also have some safety advice for newcomers who live in apartments. “Children are often tempted to climb up to apartment windows and balcony guardrails to get a better view. In such instances, a fall can happen in a matter of seconds.” To avoid these tragedies, many municipalities require that your windows have safety devices to prevent them from opening more than 10 cm. Make sure that you have them properly installed and be aware that window screens are not strong enough to protect your child. Keep cribs, beds, chairs, and any furniture a kid can climb away from all windows. In the case of balconies, never leave a child unattended.

CMHC also remarks that some apartments have natural-gas furnaces, hot water tanks, and fireplaces, or even wood-burning appliances. These domestic devices – which burn fuel to produce heat – generate dangerous gases that must be vented outdoors through a chimney or a side wall vent. You need to be sure that your appliances and venting systems are serviced annually, the air ducts are not blocked, and the chimneys or vents are not obstructed. Report buildups of ice, bird nests, or other blockages on outside vents.

Anyway, even if you practice good home safety, accidents can happen. Toronto Emergency Medical Services (EMS) encourages you to learn correct first aid and CPR (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation) procedures. The Canadian Red Cross offers classes in first aid. In addition, you can call for emergency assistance. Throughout Canada, the emergency number for police, fire, and ambulance is 9-1-1. You can call this number for free either from a regular phone, a payphone or cell phones and they can support you during an emergency in several languages, not only English. Is important to teach your children about this service and how and when to make an emergency call.

Security doesn’t mean paranoia

Home safety is only half of the story; you also need to practice good home security to protect yourself from burglary. Most thieves hit during daytime, usually attacking homes where bushes protect them from outside view. They will also break into houses and ground floor apartments that appear unoccupied, so you should secure your home and make it appear occupied all the time.

You can secure your home by taking a few simple precautions: Keep your doors and windows locked when you are not home. Close your window blinds and shades at night so that a robber cannot see your belongings inside. For more security you can install a security system. However, remember that they are just an extra layer of security. It is not a substitute for good sense.

There are easy steps you can take to make your home appear occupied all the time, even if you are away for an extended period of time. You can purchase electronic timers that automatically turn lights on and off in a normal pattern. If you are going on vacation, you should also cancel your mail delivery and arrange for a neighbour to remove flyers, mow your lawn, park in your driveway and place one of their garbage bags in front of your house on garbage pickup day.

Also, there are community programs to protect your home against crime. The Crime Prevention Association of Toronto is a non-profit organization in charge of programs like ‘A Caring Community’, a social development program that tries to connect communities through social activities like BBQ’s, picnics, pool parties, etc. and ‘Neighbourhood Watch’, which works according to three simple principles: get to know your neighbours, be alert and aware, and report suspicious activity to the police.

Probably, as a newcomer, you are living in an apartment. In this case, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) recommends keeping the deadbolt in your front door always locked, even if you are out only to look for the mail or if you are inside the apartment. Also you should install a door peephole and even consider a second one at children’s level. Another recommendation is to be very careful with balcony doors. “There is a special hardware to secure sliding balcony doors but a simple, effective, inexpensive solution is a sturdy piece of wood in the door’s track to prevent the sliding door from opening.” In addition, balconies are vulnerable to thieves so you need to secure items you would store there, like bicycles.

Most buildings have an entry system, which allows residents to let guests inside. According to CMHC “Would-be intruders will sometimes buzz different apartments until someone lets them in. Always be sure that you know the person before you open the main door.” Remind your guests to close the door behind them. If you have children, teach them how to use the system. In the case of elevators, always look who’s inside. If you feel uncomfortable, do not enter. Stay beside the control panel and learn how to use the alarm button. If a suspicious person enters the elevator, leave before the door closes. In general, tell your building manager if you have problems with doors or windows, report burned-out and broken lights, don’t disable security features or leave exit doors open (they are designed to stay closed for security and fire safety.) It’s important not to let strangers –who are waiting around the front door – get into the building and be wary of ‘security personnel’ who knock unannounced.

Remember that if you are renting a place, your landlord is legally required to keep the building and unit in a good state of repair. If your rental home is unsafe or insecure talk to your landlord about having repairs done.

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