A few simple steps can increase your home safety and protect you from dangers within and threats from outside.
Q: I’ve just moved into my first home, and I’ve suddenly realized how much I took for granted about home safety and security when I lived with my family. I am thrilled to be out on my own, and I want to be able to invite my friends and family over safely, but now I’m worried that my home may not be as safe as I think it is. How can I secure my home against potential hazards?
A: First, congratulations on your new home! Moving into your own space is an exciting time, but as you mention, it can also be a time when you suddenly realize what a significant responsibility it is to be fully in charge of a home or an apartment. This is a discovery many people make around other life changes as well—when a baby becomes a toddler and is suddenly on the move, or when an older relative comes to visit or stay—especially as the safety messages of the day seem to change so frequently. Ridding the house of hazards can seem like an impossible task, as it’s hard to know what is a hazard and what is not. Once you know what to look for, however, clearing safety hazards around the home isn’t difficult or particularly expensive, and many of the steps can be achieved quickly. Your home will feel safer in no time.
Lock doors and windows to protect your home from intruders.
This seems like such a simple step, and yet intruders often gain access to homes through unlocked or open doors and windows, so it bears repeating. The most important step residents can take to secure their homes is to lock the door each and every time they leave or return home—even if they’re just walking over to the neighbor’s yard or running to their own backyard for a few minutes, or running upstairs to grab a forgotten jacket on the way out. The same goes for windows.
If the home already has solid, secure door locks, then all this step requires is developing the habit of locking the door regularly. But the quality of the door lock matters; if the door is old, or the lock doesn’t fit tightly in the door frame, or the resident doesn’t know how long it’s been since the lock was replaced, it may be time for a new one. Front door security depends on a strong door, a strong lock, and good lighting. Do the windows in the home rely on a single sliding sash lock? They may also need bolstering or replacement; there are a number of after-market window locks that can be added to existing windows to make them harder to pry open or break. If the windows are older or single-pane, it may be time to replace them to increase the home’s security.
Keep floors dry and obstruction-free, and keep hallways and staircases well lit to help prevent accidental falls.
Taking a tumble on a kitchen rug can be something to laugh about later when joking with friends about a clumsy accident. But clumsy accidents can easily become dangerous injuries, so it’s best to protect guests and residents from slipping or falling as much as possible and save the jokes for another time. Falls are especially dangerous for adults over the age of 60 and for young children, but anyone can be seriously injured during a hard fall down the stairs or in a bathroom.
Consider removing loose throw rugs or adhering them to the floor in such a way that a toe can’t catch on the edge. Rugs are pretty, but they can slide across the floor too easily and take a person down with them, so securing them to the floor can increase safety if they’re a necessity. Cleaning up spills promptly is especially important in bathrooms and kitchens, where hard surfaces are more likely to cause injury during a fall than on carpeted surfaces. While tidying up can be an onerous task, it’s important to clear the debris that can accumulate in entryways, hallways, and staircases each day, as that pile of shoes, mail, or work and school bags can be a tripping hazard.
Finally, good lighting—especially on staircases—makes an enormous difference in reducing the likelihood of falls. Staircases need overhead lighting to reduce shadows and missed steps, and most hallways can benefit from low lights or night lights that illuminate when it gets dark. A range of cordless sconces and ground lighting is available to light areas where hardwiring would be difficult.
Test smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors regularly to ensure they are in good working order.
Smoke alarms buy home residents precious time in the event of a fire; they give the home’s residents extra minutes to get out of the home and call the fire department, potentially reducing injury, loss of life, and damage to the property. There’s a catch, though—smoke detectors only buy this time if the batteries are fresh and the alarms are functioning properly. It’s the homeowner’s or renter’s responsibility to test the alarms monthly and replace the batteries twice a year, even if the alarm hasn’t had cause to sound. The batteries drain just from “sniffing” the air and remaining on guard. Often people choose to replace the batteries when the clocks go forward and backward, and it’s a good idea to use a marker to write the most recent change date on the inside of the smoke alarm cover as a reminder of when the batteries were installed.
Carbon monoxide is a hidden danger. The colorless, unscented gas seeps out of damaged furnaces and appliances, heaters, or garages and poisons residents quickly and silently, often while they’re sleeping and thus unaware of early signs of carbon monoxide poisoning. These signs can include dizziness, nausea, confusion, and headache. Carbon monoxide detectors look similar to smoke detectors and display the current level of carbon monoxide in the air in the home. When the levels get too high, the alarm will sound, giving residents time to get out of the home, call for assistance, and seek immediate medical attention. Just like smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors need to be tested monthly and have their batteries replaced regularly in order to protect the home.
Monitor the stovetop and oven while cooking to prevent accidental burns.
For many cooks, the quick reach over one pot to stir another is a motion that is second nature, but if the cook is wearing loose sleeves, has long hair, or has a towel casually draped over an arm, that quick reach can start a fire that causes injury. Most people think of gas ovens or stoves as the culprits of kitchen fires, but a dish towel in contact with an electric burner can light up just as quickly, and heated oils and foods can burn just as badly as flames. It’s a good plan to take basic precautions such as wearing closely fitted clothing, keeping the area clear, turning pot handles toward the inside, and paying careful attention to the cooking food, as well as using dedicated pot holders or gloves to remove food from the oven. Also, keeping a fire extinguisher in the kitchen to tackle small fires quickly is an excellent safety precaution—just be sure the home’s residents know how to use it so that key moments aren’t lost reading the directions in a moment of crisis.
Keep medicine and other potentially poisonous substances in a lockable cabinet.
Poison control centers do a brisk business with calls from terrified parents whose children (or pets) have ingested medication that wasn’t intended for them. It’s easy to forget about medicine and poison safety when things get busy, and accidents can happen in a flash when medication or chemicals are left unsecured around the house. Locking medicine cabinets don’t have to be fancy—they can be as simple as a regular medicine cabinet with a lock on the side or tackle-box style to keep in a linen closet—and they may not be foolproof, but they’ll present a much greater obstacle than a childproof cap on a medicine bottle. Household chemicals and paint are best kept in an area that is not accessible to children, also behind a locked door. Finally, keep the phone number for the American Association of Poison Control Centers (1-800-222-1222) posted in an accessible location as well as saved in a cell phone, or save Poison Control’s emergency chat function as a shortcut on a laptop or phone so that if an accidental ingestion does occur, help can be summoned immediately.
Remove or tie up blind cords to prevent accidental strangulation in children and pets.
Most homeowners or renters don’t give a second thought to the cords on the blinds or shades in their home. Chances are the bottom of the cords have become tangled over time as users have grabbed them to raise or lower the blinds. The tangle may be unsightly, but it also presents a strangulation hazard for children or pets who may get their heads or limbs caught in the cords. An average of one child a month dies as a result of this hazard. This safety hazard can be corrected by snipping the cords high above the reach of children if possible, or by removing them entirely and replacing them with cordless blinds or shades.
Create a family escape plan to follow in case of an emergency.
In a true emergency, it is much easier to fall back to a planned course of action than it is to try to decide what to do in the moment, when hearts are pounding and adrenaline is surging. All of the home’s residents should work together to create an emergency plan so that it’s the default course of action and no time is wasted. Knowing which exit to use and designating a “meet outside the home spot” is a good first step, and depending on the region, households may need additional plans for power outages, tornadoes, or floods. Create the plan, and then practice it so that in an emergency the focus will be on enacting it, not panicking.
Install a smart-home security system to help keep your home safe and secure.
The best home security systems and best apartment security systems use burglar alarms, door and window sensors, cameras, and other technology to help protect the home from potential intruders. As smart-home systems have developed, however, security systems have incorporated the smart-home features into the whole-home automation plan, allowing residents to control many functions from the same app or interface. Of course, the apps associated with a home security system will allow users to arm and disarm their system, and many include a panic button that can be an important part of a home emergency evacuation plan. But the smart-home features incorporated into security systems can add to home safety in other ways by allowing a home’s residents to control hazards through an app.
Ever returned home 10 minutes after leaving to check that the front door was locked or called a neighbor from vacation to see if the garage door was closed? Smart door locks and garage door openers allow users to answer those questions by checking an app, and to lock deadbolts or close garage doors with a quick tap. Forgot to turn off the stove before leaving for the day? Another tap can turn off a smart appliance. While away from home, have you suddenly realized it’s hotter than expected and that a beloved pet may overheat? Use the smart-home security app to turn up the AC. And when arriving home later than expected, the option to preset a smart light to turn on at dusk means that the all-important front door lighting will be shining brightly upon the resident’s return. A comprehensive home security system protects a home from intruders (and may garner a discount on homeowners or renters insurance), but it can also make home safety an easier task to tackle.