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Unlikely pair cook up campaign against stovetop blazes

Fire marshal, chef, air instructional ads

State Fire Marshal Stephen D Coan says cooking caused 64 percent of residential fires in Massachusetts last year, Globe Staff

STOW - They are an unlikely odd couple on television, and their production will not be picked up by even the least discriminating network executive. But State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan is taking to the airwaves with celebrity chef Ming Tsai to tackle what they consider a bread-and-butter fire prevention issue: cooking fires.

“Very rarely do you see a front page story above the fold about a cooking fire, but the fact is that cooking is the number one cause of fire in Massachusetts,’’ Coan said in an interview at the Department of Fire Services in Stow. “When you see fire trucks going down the road to fires, this is what they’re responding to. But these are in many, many cases, if not all cases, preventable.’’

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Cooking caused 64 percent of residential fires last year, with heating causing the second-most fires at 16 percent, according to Coan’s office.

To get the message out, Coan teamed with Tsai, the owner of the restaurant Blue Ginger in Wellesley, to produce a television and radio campaign to teach people how to prevent and minimize cooking and grease fires in their home kitchens.

“The key point is when you’re cooking, you have to focus on cooking,’’ Tsai said. “You can’t be walking away, baby sitting, doing errands, and being on the phone. When you’re at the stove and the flame is on, you have to give it 100 percent attention. It’s too dangerous otherwise.’’

The two main messages of the campaign are “Stand by Your Pan’’ to prevent cooking fires and “Put a Lid on It’’ to safely extinguish grease fires. The public awareness campaign includes television and English- and Spanish-language radio.

Fire Services has also purchased a small, modular mock kitchen setup that simulates fires with lights and fans and demonstrates the proper safety techniques. Local fire chiefs and organizations like community councils on aging are able to use the kitchen’s hands-on visual effects for outreach at firehouses, community centers, and fire-prevention demonstrations.

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“Even if you’re using a timer or some other memory cue, if you have something frying, boiling, or broiling, you really need to stand by your pan,’’ said Jennifer Mieth, the fire data and public education manager at the Department of Fire Services.

As to the second message, “Put a Lid on it,’’ Mieth said that if a pot on the stove catches fire, people should calmly slide the lid over the pan and then turn off the heat. Don’t try to remove the pan from the stove and bring it to the sink, and never pour water on a stove fire.

“Use the lid as a shield between yourself and the fire and slide it, and it puts the fire out,’’ Mieth said.

There were nearly 10,000 cooking fires in Massachusetts last year that injured 95 people and killed one.

In one of the most heartbreaking examples, 92-year-old Sophie Brady of Arlington died in 2008 after her stove ignited her clothing as she was boiling water for evening tea.

Coan said seniors will be a major target of the safety campaign.

In April 2010, a 4-year-old girl died and her 23-year-old mother was seriously injured after a stovetop fire damaged her apartment.

For Coan, the campaign is another way for his office to prevent catastrophe, instead of just responding when incidents occur.

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Over the years, the agency has tackled a number of similar issues. Since the state’s Student Awareness of Fire Education campaign started in 1995, child fire deaths have declined by two-thirds. The program teaches children fire prevention and safety lessons. State fire officials have also worked to discourage smoking around home oxygen systems and the improper use of space heaters.

This is the first time the fire agency has sponsored this kind of cooking safety media campaign. The $23,000 ad campaign was paid for by the Department of Fire Services and includes television in the Boston and Springfield markets, Worcester-area radio, and a Portuguese-language radio station in Southeastern Massachusetts.

Tsai, an Emmy-winning host of television cooking shows, said the campaign was a good opportunity to teach people another home kitchen task.

“Unfortunately, if a pan really does flame up, the dish may be ruined, but guess what? You still have a house to cook in,’’ Tsai quipped.


John M. Guilfoil can be reached at jguilfoil@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globe_guilfoil.