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How to Create a House Fire Escape Plan

A raging house fire is a home owner’s worst nightmare. It’s by and large the most common disaster throughout the United States and can ruin lives in a flash.

In just the year of 2011 alone, house fires cost the country an estimated $14.9 billion. Even worse is the death toll. House fires are responsible for an American death every 2.5 hours, injuring roughly 20,000 people per year. In 2016, there were 475,500 house fires that would lead to the death of 2,050 Americans.

This constant threat causes irreparable damage to entire families. As prepared citizens and homeowners, it is our responsibility to know how to fight, prevent, and ultimately survive house fires.

To learn about other fire emergencies, read our How to Survive a Wildfire Guide.

For now, let's go over what you need to protect yourself and your loved ones from a home disaster.


  • 01

    What Causes House Fires?

  • 02

    What Can You Do to Prevent House Fires?

  • 03

    Create a Fire Escape Plan

  • 04

    How to Escape

  • 05

    What to Do During Your Escape

  • 06

    What Do I Do if Escape Is Impossible?

  • 07

    Surviving a House Fire is Possible

What Causes House Fires?

Knowledge is a large part of prevention. If we want to keep a house fire from ever taking place, we need to know what their predominant causes are. According to a study that examined 182 survivors of house fires, 46% of the fires were caused by human error, most of which were related to cooking.

If you want to stop a house fire from taking place you have to be mindful of what is happening in your kitchen, particularly what’s happening with your stove.

Approximately 71% of cooking fires involve a kitchen appliance and these incidents were often attributed to forgetfulness, such as not remembering to turn the stove off or leaving the kitchen unattended.

The other most common causes of fires within this sampling were smoking while going to bed, keeping candles too close to combustibles (e.g., curtains) and kids playing with lighters/matches.

14% of these fires were caused by neglected maintenance of a house appliance, while another 40% were caused without any human activity whatsoever. These seemingly out of nowhere housefires were largely caused by faulty electrical or ignition systems.

While in most cases a house on fire is caused by human error, there are also situations that may come as more of a surprise. As such, your family needs to know what to do to decrease your risks of ever suffering through one of these events.

What Can You Do to Prevent House Fires?

Luckily the situation is not hopeless. There are actionable steps to take that will improve your odds of survival should a house fire occur. Here are a few ways to do so…

Make Your House Number Easily Visible

Odds are you’re going to be calling 911 in the event of a house fire. The problem here is that many homes do not have their street address numbers visible on the road. While this may seem like something hardly relevant to a fire emergency, consider that the immediate sign first responders will be looking for when arriving on the scene is an easily identifiable marking of your address. You want there to be as little confusion as possible for the firefighters, so that they may deploy their hoses and tools with no delay.

There will likely be a column of smoke emitting from the house by the time they arrive, but what happens if there isn’t? Having a readable and clear street address number makes the hunt for your home easier.

Place Fire Extinguishers Strategically Throughout Your Home

Sometimes we don't realize how small accidents can lead to bigger problems when left unattended. In the context of a house fire, flames can go from minuscule to MASSIVE in one to two minutes if not treated accordingly.

This is why having fire extinguishers placed strategically throughout a home is so important. Not only can they help to save property, but they can easily save lives as well.

There are many different types of fires (e.g., gasoline, oils, wood, etc.) as well as various kinds of fire extinguishers to combat them. Firemen identify fires with a particular class type, as shown below:

Classes of Fires

Class A Fires Ordinary combustibles, such as wood or paper.
Class B Fires Flammable liquids, such as petroleum, alcohol or solvents.
Class C Fires Electrical equipment
Class D Fires Combustible metals, such as lithium, potassium or magnesium.
Class K Fires Cooking appliances with combustible cooking items, such as vegetable oil.

It’s important that you choose the right fire extinguisher for whatever type of fire you are dealing with. Thankfully, most household fire extinguishers are multi-use, with extinguishers capable of tackling Class A, B and C fires, which are relatively common.

How Do I Use a Fire Extinguisher?

Using a fire extinguisher is fairly straightforward, but there’s an acronym that will help you remember what to do:PASS.

P – Pull the pin.

Every fire extinguisher has a pin that prevents accidental discharges. This is akin to the safety on a firearm. You need to deactivate the “safety” by pulling the pin first. You won’t be able to use your fire extinguisher otherwise.

A – Aim toward the base.

If you aim for the top of the fire, you’ll hit the flame, not what’s actually burning. You need to aim for the base of the fire if you want to stop it.

S – Squeeze the handle/lever.

This will release the contents of the fire extinguisher. Think of this as pulling the trigger of a gun.

S – Sweep side to side.

Move the nozzle of the fire extinguisher from side to side to ensure you eliminate as much of the fire as possible.

By following PASS, you will ensure that you use your fire extinguisher correctly, and (hopefully) you’ll be able to put out the fire before it engulfs your home.

How Long Is My Fire Extinguisher Good For?

This will largely depend on what type of fire extinguisher you have and how it is stored. Generally, you can anticipate them to have a lifespan of somewhere between 5-15 years. For a more definitive date, look for the expiration tag...

Make sure that you have replacements in your house before the expiration date is reached. If you still aren’t certain whether your unexpired fire extinguisher is still good, check the pressure gauge for a reading. If the needle is in the green, your extinguisher should still be safe. If it’s in the red, you need to get a replacement as soon as possible.

Smoke Detectors Save Lives

If a fire starts in a different part of the house than where you are at, or if it burns in your house while you are sleeping, you will need all of the advance notice that you can get.

This is where installing numerous smoke detectors throughout one’s house comes into play. Consider these as your 24/7 fire sentries. They are ever-vigilant, monitoring the air you breathe to ensure that you aren’t caught unawares. Smoke detectors are so important that they decrease your risk of dying in a house fire by roughly 50%.

In short, you need them.

Where do you install them, though?

Typically, it’s recommended that a smoke detector be present within each bedroom, outside each bedroom and on every level of the home. So, if you live in a two-story house with all of your bedrooms on the first level, you’ll still need a smoke detector (or maybe multiple) on the second story.

And while numerous smoke detectors throughout a home are a necessity, you have to make sure they’re being properly maintained as well. The American Red Cross recommends that the batteries in every smoke detector in your house be changed at least once a year and that every smoke detector is tested once a month to ensure that your “home fire security system” is doing what it’s supposed to do.

It makes no sense to install a home security system that you’re not going to keep functional. The same principle applies to your fire plan.

Make sure it works!

Create a Fire Escape Plan

Sometimes, no matter how many precautions you put in place, fires can still occur. You’ve likely heard numerous stories of townhouses that caught on fire because the neighbor left a stove on, spilled hot grease, etc.

The point is that sometimes the presence of a fire is out of your control. This is where having a fire escape plan is key. Not having a plan isn’t an option. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

Consider that only 47% of Americans have an actionable escape plan. Don’t be the other 53%. Your family needs to know what the plan of action is in the event of a house fire. That means every individual involved should know what is expected of them ahead of time, where they are to go, and how they will escape.

Let’s take a closer look at the various aspects of creating a fire escape plan.

Who are you responsible for?

When fire containment/extinguishing doesn’t work, perhaps your next most important component of the plan is having your family know who they're responsible for. If you live alone, this is simple. But if you live with children, the elderly or those with disabilities, they’re going to need assistance when exiting the house.

If they don’t receive assistance, their chances of being burned alive increases drastically. Both children and the elderly are twice as likely to fall victim to house fires. It’s important we do our part and help those that we’ve promised to be responsible for..

For example, suppose a family consists of a father, mother, 15-year-old son, 2-year-old daughter and an 85-year-old grandmother. The father may be responsible for getting grandma out, the mother is responsible for the daughter and the son is capable of getting out on his own accord.

If this is not communicated beforehand, there will be a great deal of confusion and worry in the event of a fire.

Have 2 Ways Out of Every Room

Every room should have two ways out of it in case fire, heat or smoke blocks one of the exits. Windows are a perfectly acceptable means of escape. The only caveat is that there needs to be a safe means of getting to the ground if that window is on the second story or higher.

A fire escape ladder is an ideal tool for this exact scenario. These are collapsible ladders that can easily stow away under a bed or in a closet that can be attached to a window and allow safe egress from the burning building. These ladders are readily accessible both online or at any hardware store.

If you do opt to purchase these, make sure that everybody in your household knows where they’re located for easy access.

Plan a Place to Meet

In the event of any disaster, confusion can spread like a disease among those victimized. House fires rarely allow for an organized retreat if everyone is exiting the house from different points. Oftentimes, it separates families – causing some survivors who had escaped to run back into the fire to rescue their loved ones, meanwhile unaware that their family members or friends had already left the building.

Let’s say a candle catches the drywall on fire in the middle of your home. That fire then quickly spreads, effectively forming a wall between the two halves of your house. While you may be able to escape through the front door, your roommates may have to leave from the back.

By designating a spot beforehand, a place where everyone will meet in the event of a house fire, confusion and uncertainty can be kept to a minimum. You will likely know who was present in the house before the fire ever started, and if everybody is not at the meeting place while the inferno rages, you will know that something is wrong.

Gas Masks and Fire Escape Hoods

If you live in a multistory dwelling, investing in a gas mask with a smoke filter or a fire escape hood will be money well-spent. These will help filter out smoke particulates from the air, ensuring that you breathe cleaner oxygen as you escape out of the building.

Be very cautious, as these devices will NOT work in low-oxygen environments (there’s a reason that firefighters wear Self Contained Breathing Apparatuses). A gas mask or hood should be treated as an escape and evasion tool.

A gas mask of note you may want to consider for this purpose is the MIRA Safety CM-6M. This mask accepts 40mm NATO filters, provides an excellent range of vision and helps you get your family to safety in the event of an apartment fire. Combined this with an NBC-77 SOF Filter, you will have an effective means to help filter out dangerous chemical fumes that result when objects are burned and melted.

Making sure your family members are supplied with these masks, that they know where they are and that they know how to quickly don them will greatly increase everybody’s chances of survival.

Practice Makes Perfect

Having discussed a plan once three years ago does not prepare your family to survive a house fire. You need to practice how you’re going to get out as well. According to the American Red Cross, a fire escape plan needs to be practiced twice a year. If you are able to accomplish this, you will be part of the mere 26% of Americans who can be considered to be truly prepared.

How to Escape

You need a plan, and you need the right gear strategically positioned beforehand, but you also need to know a few practical tips on what it takes to escape from a house fire in one piece. Here they are…

Never Use the Elevator

If a fire breaks out in a multistory apartment building, you absolutely MUST use the stairs – not the elevator. By using the elevator, you risk entrapment in a burning building. Should a fire occur on a lower floor, the elevator shaft will function as a very capable chimney, funneling smoke and heat all around the elevator cab. To make matters worse, the electricity may not work either.

The end result will be death from asphyxiation or from being cooked to death. By taking the stairs, you do not have to rely on anything other than your two legs to escape the burning building.

Get Low

Hot air rises. You can witness this by watching a campfire. Smoke goes straight up into the air, which is no different than what occurs within a house fire. The smoke is going to stay close to the ceiling, therefore the lower you are to the ground, the better your chances are of breathing easier.

Without oxygen, your brain will not be capable of rational thought. You’ll become confused and make foolish mistakes. You may leave behind a loved one that you are responsible for or make a wrong turn – both actions which can lead to death.

Oxygen is also what gives your muscles the capability to move you out of that house. When you combine these facts with the long-term health consequences of breathing in a large amount of smoke (e.g., chronic emphysema, COPD, bronchitis, etc.), you can easily see why it's paramount that you get low to move out of a house fire.

Stop, Drop and Roll

If you catch on fire, you need to stop, drop and roll. This will help to smother the flames. Fire needs oxygen to burn. By rolling on the ground, you help starve the fire of that oxygen.

Be Careful Before Opening a Door

You may be sleeping in your bedroom with the door closed when your smoke detectors go off. Before you open the door, you need to ensure that you can do so safely. If you just swing the door open, you risk creating something of a fireball thanks to all of the extra oxygen you have just provided the fire. This is called backdraft, and it could result in a violent end to your life.

First, feel the doorknob and the door. If they’re hot, it’s a good sign that it may be too dangerous to exit your room through the door. Keep in mind that many doorknobs are made of metal and metal conducts heat.

What to do during your escape

There are a few tips that will help to alert other people in the building of the fire as well as minimize the fire’s spread that you can do as you make your escape. Let’s take a look at each of them in turn.

Close the Doors as You Make Your Way Out

As mentioned previously, fire needs oxygen. As you exit the house, try to close the doors safely behind you. This will form a barrier that will block off oxygen to the fire.

Have you ever used a rocket stove while camping? These are “J”-shaped stoves with a fire at the bottom of the “J”. Smoke exits through one of the top ends, and oxygen is sucked through the other. These are incredibly efficient means of cooking food with minimal fuel, and they help demonstrate why you’re going to want to shut the door to the house as you leave.

Let’s say that you are able to escape out the front door of your home in the event of a house fire. If you leave the front door open, the fire has a fantastic channel to suck more oxygen into the home. This will cause the fire to burn hotter and grow larger faster, just like a rocket stove functions. If you shut the door, you deny the fire of its oxygen.

This is just another way you can better your chances of saving your home.

Pull the Fire Alarm

If you live in an apartment, it’s likely to have a fire alarm on every floor. When you pull down on the handle, an alarm will go off throughout the entire apartment complex. This will alert everybody that it’s time to take appropriate action as quickly as possible.

Otherwise, they may have to wait for their smoke detectors to go off, and by that point, it may be too late. Remember, the presence of a smoke detector alone doesn’t guarantee that one will survive a house fire.

What Do I Do if Escape Is Impossible?

No matter how many precautions you may take, there may be times when escaping a house fire is impossible. If this is where you find yourself, you’ll need to take immediate action to increase your odds of survival.

The first thing you’ll want to do is shut the door. This will give you some time. Then, grab some type of cloth and wedge it under the door to block the smoke that will seep into your room otherwise. A towel, blanket or coat – anything. If it’s wet, it’ll do a much better job of blocking the smoke than if it was dry.

If you have the means to do so, call the fire department and tell them your address and precise location within the building.

Now, go to a window and open it – don’t break it. If you break the window and smoke begins to billow into your room from outside, you have no way of sealing yourself off. In contrast, you can simply close the window if you never broke it to begin with.

This window can serve as a source of fresh air for you and will be how you alert somebody for help. To signal people on the ground where you are, yell for help, wave your arms, wave a T-shirt, shine a flashlight – just do what it takes to be seen.

Firemen need to know exactly where to go to make an efficient and safe rescue, and doing this will help ensure that they get to you in time.

Surviving a House Fire is Possible

A house fire is not a death sentence.

There are still steps you can take before and during the event that will greatly increase your odds of making it out of the house in one piece. But much of this does take prior planning. Install your smoke detectors now. Strategically place your fire extinguishers now. Come up with a plan now.

Do not wait until it’s too late. In house fires, it is paramount that you strike preemptively and by following the above tips, you’ll be able to do just that.