Every two hours, someone is killed or injured in a house fire. Thirty years ago, you and your family would have had 17 minutes to escape. Today, because of modern home open floor plans, many more synthetic materials used in carpeting, furniture, and even clothing, and the production of fatal toxins such as hydrogen cyanide, phosgene, and carbon monoxide from these synthetics, you may have only three or four minutes to save yourself and your family. Modern homes are fueling faster fires and producing smoke that is lethal.
It’s more important than ever to have a personalized escape plan in place. This plan will make every second count, and that can be the difference between life and death. So what steps can you take to make sure you and your family survive, unscathed, in case of a house fire?
- Install working smoke detectors or fire alarms. These devices will alert you at the first sign of fire. There should be a smoke detector on every level of your home and outside the bedroom area, and in each bedroom. If the smoke alarm goes off, react immediately. Get up and get out. Do not look for the fire. Do not try to save belongings. Your only objective is to get out of the building. Smoke detectors should be checked monthly, and batteries should be changed twice a year. Having a working smoke alarm cuts your chances of dying in a fire almost in half.
- Make an escape plan for every room in your home and involve all family members in planning. It can be helpful to draw a sketch of your home’s floor plan and mark all possible exits. Each room should have at least two ways to exit. Upstairs rooms should include escape ladders and you and your family should practice deploying the ladder. Often, this is the only way to escape if trapped on an upper floor.
- Make sure your plan includes those who will need extra help. Small children, the elderly, and those with disabilities may need assistance leaving the home. Make sure your plan includes who is responsible for assisting those who need help.
- Stay low to the ground. Smoke and hot air will rise. Stay low to the ground or crawl to get out of the house. Hot smoke may be toxic. Staying low will help you avoid smoke inhalation or being scorched or burnt. If at all possible cover your mouth and nose with something wet, a towel, T-shirt, or even a rag. Smoke inhalation causes people to become disoriented and unconscious. Many more people die from smoke inhalation that from being burned.
- Close room doors as you leave the house. Closed doors help slow the spread of fire, smoke and heat. This will give you and your family extra time to safely escape and possibly minimize damage.
- Choose a meeting place and go directly there. It can be a mailbox, light pole, neighbor’s lawn. Once you are out of the house go to the meet-up place and wait. Never go back into a burning home. If someone is missing, tell the fire department dispatcher when you call 9-1-1 or responders at the scene. They are trained and have equipment to perform rescues. Do not go back and try to save someone yourself. Choose a place that is far enough away from your home so that you are out of harm’s way.
- Call the fire department after you are out of the burning house and safe. Do not waste escape time calling the fire department. Once you are safely outside at the meeting spot, call 9-1-1. Make sure your house number is clearly visible from the road to ensure that emergency responders can easily find your home.
- If you are trapped inside your home make yourself visible. Try and get to an area where others, outside, will be able to see and hear you. Shine a flashlight or wave something colorful to alert first responders. This will help firefighters know where you are so that you can be rescued. Shove clothing or towels, wet if possible, under the bottom of the door to prevent smoke from coming in. Keep windows closed. An open window will draw smoke and fire towards the fresh oxygen.
- Stop, drop, roll, cover. If your clothes catch fire, do not run or swat at the flames. Stop, drop to the ground immediately, roll to put out the flames, and always cover your face.
Practice, practice, practice! Once you have a plan in place and have discussed fire safety with all the members of your family, practice the drill at least twice a year.