April 27, 2019. Sound the Alarm Event in Capitol Heights, Maryland. 
Photo by Dennis Drenner/American Red Cross

By Gordon Williams

Just imagine it is the middle of the night and you are sleeping. You are suddenly awakened by the beeping of your smoke alarm, and there is the smell of smoke in the air. Somewhere in your home something is burning, and you and your family must get out and get out quickly. Would you know how to do that — escape with your family from a building that is on fire?

There are tips and techniques to help you escape a fire. Fire Prevention Week — October 6-12 this year — is a perfect time to review them. They come from a variety of sources, including the government’s Department of Homeland Security and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). It is the NFPA that designates this as Fire Prevention Week.

Ideally, you took the first steps toward survival long before fire broke out. That is, you crafted a home fire escape plan and all members of your family practiced carrying it out. You identified the best way to exit your home safely, and you identified the special challenges you face — an elderly or disabled family member for instance — and made plans for dealing with them. Everyone in the household has a working flashlight to help them escape a burning home in the dark. Finally, the door to every sleeping room was closed to slow the spread of smoke and flames should fire break out in the night.

So, you do know what to do and the family has drilled in evacuating a burning building. Now what?
  • Your escape must be carried out quickly. Fires double in size every 30 seconds. What was a small fire when the alarm went off could have turned into something more serious as you try to get out.
  • It must be done in near-total darkness. The government’s ready.gov/home-fires website states it this way: “Fire is dark. Fire starts bright but quickly produces black smoke and complete darkness.” Fire will often knock out the home’s electrical system, leaving your flashlight the only source of light.
  • You may think your greatest danger is from the spreading flames, but that is not the case. “Smoke and toxic gases kill more people than flames do,” says the ready.gov site. “Fires produce poisonous gases that make you disoriented and drowsy. Asphyxiation is the leading cause of fire deaths, exceeding burns by a three-to-one ratio.”
By knowing these perils, you can work to avoid them.
  • Before opening any door, touch the door and the doorknob with the back of your hand. If either feels hot, fire could be on the other side, so use your secondary escape route to get out. Open any door slowly, so you can slam it shut if there is fire on the other side. 
  • Smoke and toxic gases tend to rise, so stay low to the ground as you get out. Fire temperatures are lower near the ground. Ready.gov warns that the room temperature in a fire can be 100 degrees at floor level and 600 degrees at eye level. The site warns that 600-degree heat “will scorch your lungs and melt clothes to your skin.”
  • Concentrate on getting everyone out safely, and only then call the fire department. An exception would if someone in the house is unable to get out. In that case, leave the house and call the fire department. Make sure the emergency operator knows exactly where the person is. In reporting the fire, make sure the emergency operator knows about any pets trapped in the house.
  • Close doors as you exit the building. That will slow the spread of flames through your home. If you are in an apartment building, closing the front door will keep flames from spreading down hallways and upstairs to other apartments.
What if you or others, can’t make it out?
  • Seek a room with windows that is as far away from the fire as you can get. Close the door and use wet towels or clothing to seal the door to keep smoke and gases out, then stand at the window. The first thing fire units on the scene will do is make a circuit of the fire building. Let them know you need to be rescued.
  • If you live in a modern, fire-resistant high rise, staying in your apartment might be your best bet, unless you are dangerously close to the fire. Seal the door with wet towels to keep smoke and gases out. But do call 9-1-1 so firefighters know where you are, just in case things turn dire and you need to be rescued,
  • The main function of fire extinguishers in the home is not to fight the fire but to help you escape. Attempt to put out the fire with an extinguisher only if the fire is very small. Make sure you have a clear path to escape, and never let the fire come between you and your escape route. If you empty the extinguisher and the fire is not out, get out and leave the job to the firefighting professionals. 

The American Red Cross Home Fire campaign has proudly saved over 600 lives by educating individuals and families about home fire prevention, evacuation plans and installing free smoke alarms in homes. Find out more about the campaign or join us as a volunteer and make your community safer from the threat of a home fire.

Visit: RedCross.org

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