Last year, fire departments across the US responded to over 384,000 home fires. These fires caused $7.5 billion in damages, killed 2,640 people, and injured another 13,350. Statistically, a fire-related death occurred every 2 and a half hours and an injury every half hour.
All a fire needs is a heat source to provide the initial catalytic energy, oxygen; and any sort of combustible as a fuel source. Cooking is the primary source of home fires, and fire-related injury. Since 2005, burning cigarettes are the main source of fire-related deaths. A house fire can raise the temperature to over 1100°F in less than 4 minutes. In five minutes, it can get so hot that everything in it spontaneously combusts (known as flashover) even without actual flames. The window of opportunity to escape is roughly 210 seconds.
Taking the proper measures in the cause of a fire will maximize your chances of survival. Always be aware of your surroundings; don’t place open candles near drapes or waste paper baskets nor leave them unattended. Don’t leave newspapers near space heaters or other heat sources, and don’t smoke anywhere inside your residence. Install fire and carbon monoxide alarms in every room and common area of the house. Check these alarms annually and replace the individual units every few years. Stash several fire extinguishers around the house, know how to properly use them, and have them annually checked/serviced trained professionals.
If a fire does break out, it can burn out of control before you become aware of it. Everyone should have at least two potential escape routes from every room in the house. Make sure each escape route is void of any hazards or obstacles and adjust these routes accordingly and as direct as possible. A pet rescue sticker on or near the front door can alert first responders to your pets’ existence. Informing your children of the importance of an alternate escape route can definitely save their lives, as the primary route can be blocked. Closing all bedroom doors can delay the spread of fire and smoke into the room by 20 minutes; fire alarms are still capable of detecting smoke.
Be Aware of Oxygen Levels
The official FEMA fire safety manual explains the effects of a low oxygen environment:
- 21% Oxygen Level – Normal atmospheric level
- 19.5% Oxygen Level – Minimum healthful level
- 15-19% Oxygen Level – Decreased stamina and coordination
- 12-14% Oxygen Level – Breathing/heart rates increases with exertion, impaired coordination and perception
- 10-12% Oxygen Level – Breathing rate further increases, lips turn blue, poor judgment
- 8-10% Oxygen Level – Mental failure, fainting, unconsciousness, nausea, and vomiting
- 6-8% Oxygen Level – Fatal after 6 to 8 minutes
- 4-6% Oxygen Level – Coma in 40 seconds, convulsions, respiration ceases, and death
Fires generate thick plumes of acrid, toxic black smoke that obscures your vision and lungs. If you’re asleep when a fire breaks out, spreading CO gas can drop you into such a deep sleep that not even the intense heat will wake you. More people die each year from smoke inhalation than from the actual flames.
Get Down & Stay Down
The heat of the fire forces these clouds of gas/smoke to rise; there is usually a low area of breathable air near the floor. Roll out of bed and quickly crawl along the floor to your primary exit option. Before opening the bedroom door, check it by carefully placing the back of your hand against the door, knob, or the crack on the hinged side of the frame. If any of those feel warm, immediately move on to your secondary route. Even if they feel cool, brace your shoulder against the door before twisting the knob so the door doesn’t blow open due to air pressure. If you need to travel through a smoke-filled room to reach safety, keep a piece of cloth around your mouth and nose to help filter larger smoke and soot particulates. Wetting the wrap will add further protection. If the primary and secondary routes are cut off, look for a window. Break the pane with a blunt object and cover the sharp edges with clothing. If you’re escaping from second-story window, lower your kids as far as possible before dropping them to the adult below.
Get Out and Stay Out
Always have a designated meeting spot to ensure everyone is accounted for and away from danger. If someone is missing, do not re-enter the home. Pay attention for oxygen deprivation. Once the fire is under control, ask the fire firefighters or a neighbor for help notifying your insurance company, emergency contacts, or for lodging.