Know When To Go

Most people are at least somewhat familiar with basic home fire escape messages. For example, most of us know to “get out and stay out” of a burning building, or to call the fire department immediately for assistance if there’s a fire. However, people don’t always know – or even consider – how to respond if a fire breaks out in other types of occupancies, such as a restaurant or a high-rise building. Or, they may not believe that a fire alarm sounding in a public setting needs to be taken seriously.

The truth is, it’s essential to know how to protect yourself no matter what type of occupancy you’re in. And because a quick, decisive response often makes the difference between live and death in a fire, it’s crucial to take early warning signs seriously, and know how to react to them immediately.

Since approximately 80% of all fire deaths still occur in homes in the U.S., home escape planning remains a primary concern. But because not all recommendations for home escape planning apply to every type of occupancy, it’s important to recognize alternate steps for various types of structures and situations.

Why is early escape so important?

Fire’s power is often underestimated or misunderstood. If more people fully understood fire’s intense heat, the high speed at which it spreads, and the toxic power of smoke, they’d no doubt take early signs of fire much more seriously.

The Power of Fire

Smoke and Poisonous Gases – Smoke and poisonous gases are the leading causes of death in fires, and can kill you long before the flames reach you. A sleeping person who inhales smoke and poisonous gases may never wake up, or may pass out as soon as he or she stands up to escape. Inhaling smoke can cause rapid and severe lung damage. In addition, the particles contained in smoke obscure light and vision, and severely irritates the eyes.

Suffocation – A fire consumes the oxygen essential to human survival. During a fire, the normal level of oxygen in the air (about 21%) drops rapidly. If the level drops below 17%, clear thinking and muscle control become difficult. When the oxygen level in the air drops between 6% and 10%, breathing stops, and after four to six minutes without oxygen, brain death occurs.

Heat – Heat from fire, which can quickly exceed 1000° Fahrenheit, can cause unconsciousness in minutes, as well as severely burning exposed tissue and damaging the body by overall heat stress.

How can people prepare for fire?

Once a fire occurs, it’s too late to start developing a plan. In order to take full advantage of the short time you have to safely escape, you need to already have a plan of action in place, wherever you are.

If you live in a one- or two-family dwelling, or housing up to four stories high, the following are escape measures to help prepare you and all members of your household to snap into action if a fire occurs:

One-and Two Family Dwellings

Develop a step-by-step escape plan with all members of your household. Make sure it includes doors, windows and outdoor features, such as a porch roof or balcony which could be used for escape.

Know at least two ways out of each room, and make sure these escape routes are working properly. (Doors unlock easily, windows aren’t painted shut, etc.) If there are security bars on any windows, make sure they feature quick-release devices that everyone in the household can use.

Establish an outdoor location in front of your home where everyone will meet upon exiting.

Memorize the emergency number of the local fire department. Call that number immediately from a nearby phone once outside.

Practice your escape plan at least twice a year, and make sure to update it as circumstances in your home change, such as the arrival of a new baby or an elderly family member.

Install at least one smoke detector on every level of your home, as well as in or near all sleeping areas. Test your smoke detectors once a month and change the batteries annually.

Apartment Buildings (Up to Four Stories) and Dormitories

Check to make sure your housing is protected by building-wide fire detection and alarm systems.

Find out who is responsible for maintaining the fire protection systems in your building, and check with you apartment manager to make sure those systems are working.

Practice a fire drill with all building residents at least twice a year. In a fire emergency, always use the stairs, never elevators.

If the fire alarm sounds, don’t investigate – evacuate.

High-Rise Buildings

Evacuation procedures for high-rise buildings are similar to those of other buildings, but with large number of people evacuating at the same time, cooperation and precision are extremely important. Whether you live in a high-rise building, or you’re staying at a hotel, the following are steps to help best protect you in case of fire:

Count the number of doors between your apartment or hotel room and the two nearest building exits.

If you discover a fire, sound the fire alarm and call the fire department.

Leave the fire area quickly, closing all doors behind you to slow the spread of fire and smoke. If the building has a voice communication system, follow its evacuation instructions precisely, unless doing so puts you in immediate danger.

If you encounter smoke or flames, use you alternate escape route. Some evacuation plans may require you to go to a safe area inside the building and wait for the fire department to supervise evacuation.

If You’re Trapped…

Stay calm. There are many steps you can take to protect yourself.

If possible, go to a room with an outside window or balcony and a telephone.

Close all doors between you and the fire. Use tape or stuff a wet towel to fill cracks around doors and cover vents to keep smoke out.

If there’s a phone in the room where you’re trapped, call the fire department and tell them exactly where you are, even if you can see fire trucks on the street below.

If possible, open the window at the top and bottom and signal to firefighters with a light cloth or flashlight. Do no break the window, and be ready to shut it quickly if smoke rushes in.

Tragically, there have been incidents where the fire department has been unable to locate a building because its address was unclear. To ensure this doesn’t happen where you are, check to make sure your building’s address is clearly marked outside so firefighters can find it immediately in case of fire. If the building is not clearly marked, contact building officials to resolve this problem.

Out and About

Most of us spend a majority of the day at work, school or home, but we’re also frequently in public settings or locations that are less familiar to us, including restaurants, malls, theaters, hotels and motels. While escape planning for the home can’t directly be applied to these settings, there are several measures everyone can take to better protect themselves in case of fire.

Personal Responsibilities – First and foremost, it’s your responsibility to get all available fire escape information about the location you’re in. Take note of the two exits nearest you, and make sure they are unobstructed and unlocked.

If you’re a guest at a friend’s home, learn their escape plan, and make sure you know two escape routes from every room, especially the bedrooms if you’re spending the night. Make sure there are working smoke detectors in the home. If you have children, remind them to ask about escape procedures when spending the night at a friend’s house or if they’re heading off to camp.

Take Fire Alarms Seriously – When a fire alarm sounds in a public setting, many people assume it’s a false alarm, and will wait to see what others do before taking any personal action. If you hear a fire alarm sound, respond immediately without waiting to see what others do.

Fire Reminders

Choose the safest escape route, but if you must go through smoke to escape, crawl low under it where the air is cleaner and cooler.

Before opening a closed exit door, feel the door knob and space between the door and frame for any signs of warmth using the back of your hand. If the door feels completely cool, open it slowly, but be prepared to slam it shut if smoke is on the other side. At any sign of smoke, use your alternate exit or take action to protect yourself in that location.

Once you’re out of the building, stay out. Never go back inside a burning building.