Smoke alarms in the home are chirping wildly. Sarah and Kyle throw their sheets off themselves and dash out of their bedrooms. They know they have exactly two minutes to escape from the house. They dash through clear hallways and empty walkways until they reach the front door. Are you prepared for a home fire escape?

Once outside, a sprint ensues as they head toward the farthest tree from the home, where they know their parents will be waiting.

They arrive at the tree and take a look back at the house. No smoke. No fire. The family looks at each other and breathes a sigh of relief. This was just a practice drill, but they accomplished the goal. Now they know if a fire happens, they can get out of the home in less than two minutes. They’ll avoid a dangerous and deadly situation.


A Serious Threat

There’s many misconceptions about responding to a fire in the home. Most families believe they’ll have ample time or they’ll be able to react to a situation simply by hearing their alarms and detectors.

Though these devices are necessary, being able to respond to a fire incident is determined by preparation, planning, and practice. Survival comes down to the work that you have done beforehand.

According to the Red Cross, only 26 percent of families have actually developed and practiced a home fire escape plan. They say that eighty percent of these families don’t even realize that home fires are the single most common disaster in the country.

The US Fire Administration reports that someone is killed in a home fire every two and a half hours, and 20,000 people are injured in home fires in a typical year. These numbers are rather alarming, and the lack of awareness during these situations is discouraging. This guide is so you know the risks, and have the proper plan in place.

How to Prepare for a Fire Emergency

During a fire, every second counts. Smoke can fill a house in moments, and when visibility is low, escape is difficult. Preparing in advance will save you from losing precious time.

Preparation Checklist

  • Know two ways out of every room.
  • Make sure all doors and windows open easily.
  • Learn the phone number for your local fire department.
  • Have one smoke alarm on every floor, every sleeping area, and in every room.
  • Make sure the house or building number can be seen from the street for emergency responders.
  • Draw a map of each level of the house. Show every door and window to understand your home’s layout.
  • Test smoke alarms once a month, replace the batteries once a year, and change the entire system once every ten years.
  • If you live in a high-res, always plan to use stairs to escape, never an elevator.
  • If you live in a condo, apartment, or house with multiple floors, have as many escape routes as possible. Know where exits and stairways are in your building.
  • Clean the home, and get rid of debris like boxes, toys, wires, or other hazards that can build on floors and hallways
  • If you have security bars on doors or windows, have a quick release latch. Make sure that everyone knows how to open them.
  • Make sure people are assigned to help infants, older adults, and family members with disabilities.
  • Make sure kids wake up to the sound of an alarm, and if they don’t, wake them up as part of your fire escape process.

Helpful tip: A good secondary escape is a window onto an adjacent roof, or a collapsible ladder for upper-story windows. Only purchase collapsible ladders evaluated by a nationally recognized laboratory, like underwriters laboratory (UL).

Discuss your plan and practice your fire drill with the family twice a year. Discuss all variables, trouble spots, and family preferences. Account for everyone in the family that will be involved with the escape plan. This includes older adults, people with disabilities, babies, dogs, and children. Assign someone the role of helping older adults and those with disabilities. If you have guests who frequent the home, fill them in on the escape plan. Especially parents of kids who stay the night. This will ease any concerns they have about safety.

Important Note: Teach kids not to hide during fires. They have to get out and stay out. Practicing fire drills will help to remind them, but they must be taught, because some kids have the natural response of wanting to hide.

Practice! Practice! Practice!

Start the fire drill by hitting the alarm button on the smoke detector, and feeling your way out of the house in the dark, with your eyes closed and mouth covered.

The famous adage “get low and go” is used to describe the proper response to a fire. This means getting on all fours — because smoke rises to the top of the room and you won’t be able to breathe —  and crawling out to safety and oxygen.

When you practice, practice it all!

  • Low crawling
  • Outside meeting
  • Getting the kids from bed
  • Assisting older adults and those with disabilities

Practice every variable. The entire evacuation plan. Have spontaneous drills, but if your kids are too young, don’t scare them by having them at random in the middle of the night. Telling them a drill will happen at some point will give them enough of a heads up to practice the drill effectively. You want the kids to learn the process when the stakes are low, not scare them.

Don’t neglect the importance of preparation: You can’t be successful at the escape plan unless you put in the work. Draw maps of the home. Know your escape routes. Know what needs families have. Cover every single variable.

It’s Life or Death

Having a working smoke alarm reduces one’s chances of dying in a fire by nearly half according to the NFPA. People often think they have plenty of time to escape, but their misconceptions are realized when an unfortunate disaster presents itself.

When a fire is happening, remember:

  • Never go back into the home for anything.
  • Never open doors that are warm to the touch.
  • Meet with your family at the pre-planned location outside.
  • Assist family member who are disabled or older.
  • If kids don’t wake up easily, get them out of bed.
  • If you are blocked inside of a room because of smoke, heat or flames, stay in the room with the door closed. Put towels under doors and call emergency personnel — fire department or 911 — and tell them you’re trapped. Signal for help by waving a bright colored cloth or flashlight out of a window, but don’t break the window, open it.

Once you’ve escaped a fire, stay outside and contact the fire department and 911. Soak in the oxygen and don’t head back inside until you’re advised it’s safe to do so.

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