It is important to have smoke alarms in your home to warn you when a fire occurs. It is also important to have a clear plan for what you will do if the alarm sounds, and to practice that plan regularly.
Many people believe that they will “get out of the house” if a smoke alarm sounds, but they don’t really spend much time thinking about it. After all, how difficult can it be to get out of a house? Most of us exit our home several times per day, and it seems simple enough. What is easy to do when we’re awake and prepared, with good visibility, isn’t always easy to do in the middle of the night, when the air is thick with smoke and we’re choking on the toxic gasses produced by a fire. In a situation like that, with the regular exits blocked by fire or smoke, it is easy to become confused, disoriented or trapped… and die in a house fire. To prevent that from happening, it is important that you have a home escape plan (sometimes called an “exit drill”). It is also important that you practice the escape plan regularly, so that every person in the household can escape from any room in the home.
The steps to developing a good escape plan are:
1. Draw a floor plan of your home. It doesn’t have to be neat, or be drawn to scale, but it must show all of the rooms, stairways and other important features of the house, including all windows and doors.
2. Find at least two reasonable exits from each room. In almost all cases one exit will be the door, but the other exit may be a different door, a window or stairs. The exits should be on different sides of the room, so that if one is blocked by fire or smoke the other may still be usable. The exits must also be reasonable - a window isn’t a very good exit from a third floor room unless there’s a rope ladder or other emergency descent system available in the room. Windows or doors that some members of the household can’t open are also not very useful as exits, since you never know who be in the room when a fire starts. If members of your household are very young or very old, or have disabilities, you will need to develop a plan for how they will get out.
3. Check out your escape routes to make sure they are usable. Can everyone in the household open the windows? Can children reach the locks on windows and doors? If you have security bars on doors or windows, are they easily opened from inside? If you find problems that might block your escape route, fix them.
4. Select a place to meet outside the home where everyone will gather after they exit. The meeting place should be easily recognizable and accessible by all members of the household. It should be reasonably close to the home, but not so close that anyone there will be in danger if the entire residence is burning. In most cases the meeting place should be in front of your home.
5. Practice your escape plan. Don’t just walk through it during the day. Practice it at various times, including late at night, until all members of the household can escape from the home quickly even if they’re sleepy, confused or afraid. Practice crawling to stay low under smoke, and practice checking doors to see if they are warm (see below). If you feel silly crawling around in your house in the dark, just remember - if you make a mistake during a real fire, you won’t just feel silly; it might be a fatal mistake.
6. If a fire occurs, get out fast. Follow the guidelines below and leave the home as quickly as you can. Don’t call the fire department, save valuables or rescue pets - just get outside as quickly as you can, while helping anyone in the household who needs assistance to get outside.
When you are escaping from a fire, crawl low to the floor with your head one to two feet (12 to 24 inches) above the floor. This is the area where the air will be cleanest. Even if you don’t see smoke, don’t stand up. Super-heated air and toxic gasses from a fire can fill the upper part of a room very quickly, and in many cases they are invisible. Standing up into those gasses can cause you to suffocate in moments. Stay low and crawl to the exit.
Test doorknobs, the backs of doors and the walls around doors with the back of your hand. If you feel unusual warmth, do not open the door - there may be fire or super-heated air on the other side. Instead, try an a different escape route. If the door feels cool, open it slowly. If smoke or flames rush in, or you feel a sudden burst of heat, slam the door closed and try another escape route.
When you find an unblocked escape route, stay low but move quickly. Move toward an exit to the outside and get out as quickly as you can. Close doors behind you if you can, to slow the spread of fire and smoke.
Once you are outside, go directly to the meeting area. Send one adult or older child to call the fire department from a neighbor’s home or local business, or use a cell phone if you have one in a vehicle. Do not go back into the burning building. If someone is missing, tell the firefighters as soon as they arrive.