Don't feel the burn: Escaping a fire

More than 4,000 Americans die each year in fires -- and another 20,000 are injured. But just having a smart escape plan in place can help to vastly increase you and your family's safety if a fire occurs. Here are some things to remember.

In the event of a fire, remember that time is the biggest enemy, and every second counts! An escape plan will help you get out of your home quickly -- but only if you can put it into action. In less than 30 seconds, a small flame can get completely out of control and turn into a major fire. From there, it only takes minutes for a house to fill with thick black smoke and become engulfed in flames.

Get out immediately
In the event of fire, rule number one: Get out of there. Don't stop to get dressed or to gather valuables -- and don't even stop to call 911. (That will be something you do right after you get outside.)

Take the safest exit route, but if you must escape through smoke, remember to crawl low, under the smoke, and keep your mouth covered. The smoke contains toxic gases which can disorient you or -- even worse -- overcome you.

Seconds count -- so you unfortunately don't have time to run around searching for the family pet. Instead, get some pet safety alert decals to let rescue services know you have a cat, dog or bird who needs assistance.

Never open doors that are hot to the touch
When you come to a closed door, use the back of your hand to feel the top of the door, the doorknob, and the crack between the door and door frame to make sure that fire is not on the other side. If it feels hot, use your secondary escape route.

Even if the door feels cool, open it carefully. Brace your shoulder against the door and open it slowly. If heat and smoke come in, slam the door and make sure it is securely closed, then use your alternate escape route.

Rehearse escaping from every room
Practice escape plans every month. The best plans have two ways to get out of each room. If the primary way is blocked by fire or smoke, you will need a second way out. A secondary route might be a window onto an adjacent roof or using an UL-approved collapsible ladder to escape from upper story windows.

Also make sure that windows are not stuck, screens can be taken out quickly and that security bars can be properly opened. In addition, practice feeling your way out of the house in the dark or with your eyes closed.

An escape plan for people with special needs
People with disabilities have to take additional precautions. Suggestions include:

  • Know at least two exits from every room.
  • If you use a walker or wheelchair, check all exits to be sure you get through the doorways.
  • Make any necessary accommodations, such as providing exit ramps and widening doorways, to facilitate an emergency escape.

Security bars require special precautions
Security bars on your windows may help to keep the bad guys out of your house -- but they can also trap you inside in the event of a fire.

Windows and doors with security bars must have quick-release devices to allow them to be opened immediately in an emergency. Make sure everyone in the family understands and practices how to properly operate and open locked or barred doors and windows.

Designate a meeting place outside and take attendance
Designate a meeting location away from the home, but not necessarily across the street. For example, meet under a specific tree or at the end of the driveway or front sidewalk to make sure everyone has gotten out safely, and no one will be hurt looking for someone who is already safe.

Pick one person to go to a neighbor's home to phone the emergency services (or use a nearby fire alarm box).

"And stay out!"
Remember to escape first, then notify the fire department by calling 911 system (or the local emergency number in your area). Never go back into a burning building for any reason -- not to grab your original Picasso... and not even for your iPhone.

If someone is missing, tell the firefighters. They are equipped to perform rescues safely. (Got kids? Teach your children not to hide from the firefighters!)

Finally, having working smoke alarms installed on every level of your home dramatically increases your chances of survival. Smoke alarm batteries need to be tested every month and changed with new ones at least once a year. Also, consider replacing the entire smoke alarm every ten years, or as the manufacturers guidelines recommend.

Don't bet on it
When in doubt -- about whether or not you really need to evacuate or if you should stay behind with the puny fire extinguisher -- just get out. Your furniture, knick-knacks and even your wedding album can be replaced or remembered, but you are not expendable.

Finally, don't try hiding from a fire. Flames are the greatest experts ever at hide and seek -- and they play for keeps.

Portions of this article were adapted from information provided by the US Fire Administration (USFA).

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