Each year, more than 3,500 Americans die in house fires and over 18,000 are injured according to the U.S. Fire Administration. Most of those fatalities might have been prevented had an escape plan been put in place and practiced beforehand. You can protect your loved ones by developing a plan based on the following points.
1. Hold a family meeting. Gather the family together, young and old. Explain to everyone that fire is a danger, one that can damage a home and destroy lives. Temper your conversation to fit the age of your children, but do convey the gravity of such an emergency. Explain that you will develop an escape plan that will cover every room in the house, with the family reconvening to learn and practice that plan.
2. Map it out. Your family may know your home inside and out, but they may not be aware of every possible way of escape. Draw up a floor plan, using an oversized poster board to show the interior of your home. Use arrows and bright colors to map out a way of escape.
3. Examine emergency exits. Every room has one obvious way in and out: the door. There are other ways of egress too including a window. For second floor exits, explain to children how an alternate form of escape should be taken in an emergency. Small children may need help getting out — assign older brothers or sisters to help out or a parent. Have an escape ladder available in rooms where the egress must take people directly to the ground.
4. Find a meeting place. Identify a meeting place outside of your home where family members will congregate and give an account for their presence. That meeting place should be far enough away from the home to keep everyone safe, but not so far that it is difficult to find or get to. Consider that the weather conditions at the time of a fire might be abysmal, with cold conditions including snow and ice making it difficult to get to the meeting place. The cover of darkness, too, can frighten little ones — make it a location that is familiar too such as the mailbox by the street.
5. When to call the fire department. How soon should you call the fire department to report an emergency? Answer: once you know that everyone is safe. It may seem counterintuitive to wait, but the first few minutes after a fire has been detected are the most critical one. Get everyone out of the house safely first, then call for help. Use a portable phone, your cell phone or a neighbor’s phone to make that call. Yell for help too and your neighbors will likely come to your assistance, to ensure that everyone is safe and that the call to 9-1-1 has been made.
6. Practice, practice, practice. Reconvene the family and show everyone your floor plan. Discuss the various escape routes and the procedures for bringing small children or disabled individuals to safety. If pets are involved, outline who will grab kitty or bring other small pets to safety. Go from room to room and point out the various escape routes. Have family members practice their escape. Show children how to unlatch and lift windows as well as how to throw down ladders. Just when you think everyone gets its, practice again. And again and again.
You can take extra measures to ensure the safety of your family members. For one, place people locator fire stickers facing the outside of the home wherever people sleep. You want to make it easy for fire personnel to find people that may not have had time to escape or have been overcome by smoke. For another, keep working flashlights in each room. Flash lights can help people escape when power has been cut. These can also signal for help when needed.
Practice your fire drills at least twice per year. Check your smoke detectors at the same time, activating the alarms to start your drills. Invest in fire extinguishers, but do not rely upon these alone. Always call for help once your family is secure.
Finally, consider ways to prevent fires. This may mean turning off portable heaters when you leave a room, removing flammable materials far from fire sources and forbidding anyone from smoking in the house. Consider that smoke is the biggest killer not the fire itself, and teach your family how to crawl low under smoke as they make their escape.
U.S. Fire Administration: Home Fire Prevention and Safety Tips — http://www.usfa.fema.gov/citizens/home_fire_prev/
Red Cross: Fire Prevention & Safety Checklist — http://www.redcross.org/images/MEDIA_CustomProductCatalog/m4340073_FireSafety.pdf
Barry Atkins writes for Portable Appliance Safety Services, and enjoys teaching and writing about modern testing equipment, like the Flir i7 Thermal Imaging Camera. You can also find Barry on Google+.