There are more than 350,000 home fires in the United States every year, which account for approximately 3,500 deaths and 15,000 serious injuries. More than 8 out of 10 U.S. house or building fires are primarily caused by unattended cooking, space heaters, cigarettes or candles. (Candles are responsible for approximately 6,800 fires each year.) Most of the fire‑related deaths are the result of toxic fumes and smoke inhalation.
Although the discovery of fire was a major factor in humankind’s dominance and survival since prehistoric times, once fire goes unchecked and is burning rampantly, it is a fearsome enemy. If it were compared to a combative opponent, it is ruthless, indiscriminate in its destruction and will not stop until extinguished. In addition, its attacks are unannounced and can happen at any time.
Considering these characteristics of fire, the first course of action is prevention and preparation. If you live in an apartment building or work in an office building, know the location of the nearest fire exits. Never use the elevator, as these are virtual wind tunnels for fire to move between floors. As for physical toughness, you should be at least in minimal physical condition to use the fire escape or designated stairways. I recommend that you actually take this route during non-emergency conditions so that in the event of a fire you are familiar with it.
You should know this escape route thoroughly, counting the number of doors from your office, for example, to the fire exit door. Rehearse this route several times. Be able to find your way to the exit with your eyes closed. The evacuation path then becomes a mental file you can draw on in the event of an emergency. There could be no visibility during an actual fire, in addition to your being impeded by other panicking occupants. The best plan is preparation.
The same preparation must be taken in a house. The family should practice an evacuation plan and go through the drill numerous times. Depending on where the fire originates, certain windows and doors should be checked to see if they open properly and offer workable exits. You should know no less than two evacuation options for each floor of your residence. If bedrooms are located on the second floor, for example, rope ladders can be used and stored in easily accessible areas. Fire is quick, deadly and unforgiving. Preparations and drills must be taken seriously.
- Install and check smoke alarm batteries regularly. It’s a good practice to make this test in a designated month, such as when the clocks have to be changed in the spring and fall. This is especially important if you are renting a place and are unaware of the age or reliability of the smoke alarms installed.
- Install fire extinguishers and check expiration dates. Secure fire extinguishers in areas that are close to likely fire hazards, such as stoves, but not in adjacent cabinetry.
- Practice varying evacuation routes, and have alternate paths, depending on the origin of the fire.
- Have means to escape from upper floors. Ensure ALL fire escapes are open and operate correctly, especially in older and multi-story buildings.
- Make a designated meet-up point, so that all escaping family members can be accounted for immediately.
What to do in a fire
If a fire breaks out in your house, attempt to extinguish it primarily with the proper fire extinguisher. If you have a garden hose near the front or back door, make sure it is long enough to reach kitchen areas. You could attempt to extinguish the fire with water if it remains locally contained, but do not use water if the source of fire is electrical.
As a final attempt to extinguish the fire, use a non-flammable blanket or coat and attempt to smother it, but do not create a gust of more air by beating at it. As mentioned, most fatalities are due to smoke inhalation. If the fire is beyond any reasonable attempt of control, immediately evacuate. The smoke will kill you before the fire does.
Fire evacuation checklist
- Use a previously established code word to alert all family members of the hazard and the call to action.
- Close doors when leaving rooms. This will slow down the spread of fire.
- Just as fires do in forests, flames move upward in a house or building. Heat and smoke rises; move rapidly, but stay low and as close to the floor as possible.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a moistened cloth.
- If trapped by flames in a room with a window and the window does not open fully, smash glass in the center with an object and cover jagged ends around the frame with a towel or blanket before exiting.
- If evacuation is blocked by flames while on an upper floor, tie bed sheets together and fasten to a firm object, such as a bed leg. If the height to the ground is more than 20 feet, attempt to use something to decrease the distance you are from the ground.
- If you must jump, use the Parachute Landing Fall or PLF method. Lower yourself as far as possible while holding onto the window frame or the makeshift rope from bed sheets, and then push off from the wall. Keep your legs slightly bent, with your knees and feet together. Roll sideways as you land. This spreads the landing impact throughout the body.
- Get away from the burning structure and head toward the pre-established designated regrouping area.
Trust me when I say PLF works. On my 5th jump at Airborne Jump School, I exited the aircraft and looked up to see a nice hole in my canopy. Now, the rule was any hole larger than your helmet and you need to ditch the parachute and go for your reserve. Okay—the unwritten rule is the reserves don’t work very well, so I decided to ride it in “as is.” Well, I hit the ground like a bag of rocks and even cracked my hip but was able to limp away thanks to the old PLF. BTW—round chutes suck, unless you are landing in water.
Be a Survivor, Not a Statistic!
Former Navy SEAL / 4Patriots Contributor