Make a Fire Escape Plan and Practice It

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by Tom Loach

Every week I call my mother, who lives in New York, to check up on how she and the rest of the family are doing. Last week when she said hello I heard something in her voice telling me all was not well. She went on to tell me about a house fire on her street in which, despite the best efforts of the firefighters and rescue personnel, someone had died. It seemed the fire had started in the kitchen and the father and his son who were home at the time tried to put the fire out. Somehow the two got separated, the fire spread very rapidly, and the father did not make it out of the house. Unfortunately, this type of story is not uncommon, so I want to review some important facts so this tragedy doesn’t repeat itself here in Crozet.

Each year, about 4,000 people in the U.S. die in house fires and about 25,000 are injured. Fires kill more Americans than all natural disasters combined.

Fire is fast. In less than 30 seconds a small flame can get completely out of control and turn into a major fire. It only takes minutes for thick black smoke to fill a house. In minutes, a house can be engulfed in flames. Many home fires occur when people are asleep. If you wake up to a fire, you won’t have time to grab valuables because fire spreads too quickly and the smoke is too thick. There is time only to escape.

Fire is hot: A fire’s heat alone can kill. Room temperatures in a fire can be 100 degrees at floor level and 600 degrees at eye level. Inhaling this super-hot air will scorch your lungs. This heat can melt clothes to your skin. Within five minutes, a room can get so hot that everything in it ignites at once; this is called flashover.
Fire is dark. Fire isn’t bright. It’s pitch black. Fire quickly produces black smoke and complete darkness. If you wake up to a fire, you may be blinded, disoriented and unable to find your way around the house you have lived in for years.

Fire is deadly. Fire uses up the oxygen you need and produces smoke and poisonous gases that kill. Breathing even small amounts of smoke and toxic gases can make you drowsy, disoriented and short of breath. The odorless, colorless fumes can lull you into a deep sleep before the flames reach your door. You may not wake up in time to escape.

Causes of fire and deaths: Cooking is the leading cause of home fires in the U.S. It is also the leading cause of home fire injuries. Cooking fires often result from unattended cooking and human error, rather than mechanical failure of stoves or ovens.

Careless smoking is the leading cause of fire deaths. Smoke alarms and smolder-resistant bedding and upholstered furniture are significant fire deterrents. Arson is the second leading cause of residential fires and residential fire deaths. In commercial properties, arson is the major cause of death, injuries and dollar loss. Heating is the third leading cause of residential fires. Heating fires are a larger problem in single-family homes than in apartments. Unlike apartments, the heating systems in single-family homes are often not professionally maintained.

If you haven’t done so already, it’s time to come up with a home escape plan. The only way to make sure everyone knows what to do is to practice your plan. Many of you already have home fire extinguishers, but remember these extinguishers are only for small fires and even if you decide to use the extinguisher, I recommend that you also call the fire department. Should things get out of hand, help is already on the way.

The U.S. Fire Administration recommends that you should use a home fire extinguisher only if:

• You have alerted other occupants and someone has called the fire department
• The fire is small and contained to a single object, such as a wastebasket
• You are safe from the toxic smoke produced by the fire; you have identified a means of escape and the fire is not between you and the escape route
• And, your instincts tell you that it is safe to use an extinguisher.

If all of these conditions are not present, you should NOT try to use a fire extinguisher. Alert other occupants, leave the building following your home escape plan, go to the agreed upon meeting place, and call the fire department from a cell phone or a neighbor’s home.

The bottom line here is, if you think you have a problem pick up the phone and dial 911. Getting to the fire as early as possible increases our chances of putting the fire out quickly, limiting the amount of damage to your home and reduces the danger to our firefighters. It’s all right to call, really!

The Crozet Volunteer Fire Department is committed to the protection of the lives and property of the residents of Crozet and to a great extent it’s the support from the community that allows us to honor that commitment. That said, when it comes to the types of calls we get there is some room for improvement. Several weeks ago we got a call from someone in one of our new developments asking us to investigate the smell of propane in the area. By the time we were near the reporting address, we knew the problem wasn’t propane. The real problem was more Pepe Le Pew: skunk! Needless to say, there were a few good natured “must be another Yankee in Crozet” jokes on the way home, but no one complained about taking the call, which is why I say, it’s all right to call, really!

Note: In the time it likely took to read this page, three to four structure fires have been reported somewhere in the United States.