How to Create a House Fire Escape Plan (2023 Update)
A raging house fire is a home owner’s worst nightmare. Ruining lives in a literal and proverbial flash, it’s one of the most common disasters throughout the United States.
In fact, in the year 2011 alone, house fires cost the country an estimated $14.9 billion. Even worse, of course, is the death toll, with house fires claiming an American life every 2.5 hours, and injuring roughly 20,000 people per year.
To put that in perspective: In 2016, there were a staggering 475,500 house fires in the United States, resulting in the deaths of 2,050 Americans.
Though the threat of fire damage can be paralyzing, it is our responsibility, as conscientious citizens and homeowners, to learn how to fight, prevent, and ultimately survive house fires.
In the past, we have explored methods of surviving wildfires—an urgent need in the wake of the uncontrolled blazes of wildlife in Central Canada.
Today, however, we're shifting our focus to the home, detailing exactly what you need to protect yourself and your loved ones from a house fire.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
What Causes House Fires?
What Can You Do to Prevent House Fires?
Create a Fire Escape Plan
How to Escape
What to Do During Your Escape
What Do I Do if Escape Is Impossible?
Surviving a House Fire is Possible
What Causes House Fires?
Knowledge is a large part of prevention. As such, if we want to keep a house fire from taking place, we need to know what their predominant causes are. A study that examined 182 survivors of house fires reveals the answer: 46% of the fires were caused by human error, most of which were related to cooking.
That means that if you want to stop a house fire from sparking, you have to be mindful of what is happening in your kitchen—particularly what’s happening with your stove.
Unsurprisingly, an approximate 71% of human error-induced cooking fires involve a kitchen appliance, and these incidents were often attributed to forgetfulness. In other words, one might fail to turn the stove off, or momentarily leave the kitchen unattended.
Within this sampling, other common causes of fires included smoking while going to bed, keeping candles too close to combustibles (e.g., curtains), and kids playing with lighters and matches.
Additionally, 14% of non-injury house fires were triggered by neglected maintenance of a house appliance, while another 40% were ignited without any human activity whatsoever. Instead, they were a result of faulty electrical or ignition systems.
All in all, house fires can be caused by a wide range of situations, both within and out of our control. 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.
Regardless of the dangers that house fires pose, there are actionable steps to take that will improve your odds of survival should one 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. Problem is, many homes do not have their street address numbers visible on the road.
While this may seem insignificant, consider that the immediate sign that first responders will be looking upon arrival on the scene is an easily identifiable marking of your address. On that basis, you will want there to be as little confusion as possible for the firefighters, so that they're able to deploy their hoses and tools without delay.
Granted, there will likely be a column of smoke emitting from the house by the time they arrive—but what happens if there isn’t? In that case, 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 that 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 it's so important to strategically place fire extinguishers throughout the home. Not only can they help to spare your property from fire damage, they can end up saving lives, too.
Note that there are a number of types of fires (e.g., gasoline, oils, wood, etc.), and, correspondingly, different 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, so you can fend off the flames effectively. Thankfully, however, most household fire extinguishers are multi-use, with extinguishers capable of tackling the most common kinds of fires—namely, Class A, B and C.
How Do I Use a Fire Extinguisher?
Using a fire extinguisher is fairly straightforward, especially when you remember the following acronym: PASS.
P – Pull the pin.
Every fire extinguisher has a pin that prevents accidental discharges. This is akin to the safety on a firearm. With this in mind, you need to deactivate the “safety” by pulling the pin first. Otherwise, you won’t be able to use your fire extinguisher.
A – Aim toward the base.
If you aim for the top of the fire, you’ll hit the flame, not what’s actually burning. Therefore, you need to aim for the base of the fire.
S – Squeeze the handle/lever.
This will release the contents of the fire extinguisher. Think of it like pulling the trigger of a gun.
S – Sweep side to side.
In order to eliminate as much of the fire as possible, move the nozzle of the fire extinguisher from side to side.
By following PASS, you will ensure that you deploy your fire extinguisher correctly, meaning that—hopefully!—you’ll be able to put out the fire before it engulfs your home.
How Long Is My Fire Extinguisher Good For?
So, how long will your fire extinguisher remain operational?
In large part, this will depend on what type of fire extinguisher you have and how it is stored. But to provide a rough estimate: you can generally expect them to have a lifespan of five to fifteen years.
For a more definitive date, refer to the expiration tag, and keep track of when you will need to provide a replacement.
And, if push comes to shove, you can check the pressure gauge of your fire extinguisher for a reading. If the needle is in the green, your extinguisher should still be safe. If it’s in the red, meanwhile, you need to purchase a replacement as soon as possible.
Smoke Detectors Save Lives
If a fire starts in a different part of the house, or if it touches off 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 your 24/7 fire sentries: ever-vigilant, monitoring the air you breathe to ensure that you aren’t caught unawares. Indeed, 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 in each bedroom, outside each bedroom, and on every level of the home. That means that 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. Accordingly, 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 monthly to ensure that your home fire security system is up and running.
Think about it: 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.
So make sure it works!
Create a Fire Escape Plan
Sometimes, fires occur regardless of how many precautions you put in place. As such, you’ve likely heard numerous stories of townhouses that caught on fire because of faulting electrical wiring, a malfunctioning furnace, or a defective appliance.
What these stories teach us is that, in spite of our best efforts, many common causes of fires are outside of our control. This is where having a fire escape plan is key.
Failing to prepare is not an option. Remember what Benjamin Franklin said: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”
Sadly, though perhaps not surprisingly, only 47% of Americans have an actionable escape plan, meaning chaos reigns for over half the country when a fire breaks out.
To avoid being a part of that 53%, clearly delineate what is expected of each family member ahead of time. Make sure they know where to go in the event of a fire, and how they will escape.
And don't worry—we will walk you through your fire escape plan.
Who are you responsible for?
When fire containment/extinguishing fails, your family members will need to 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 harmed or killed in the fire increases drastically. In fact, both children and the elderly are twice as likely to fall victim to house fires. That's why it's so important that we do our part and help those that we’ve promised to protect.
For example, suppose a family consists of a father, mother, fifteen-year-old daughter, two-year-old son, and eighty-five-year-old grandmother. In that scenario, the father might assist the grandma while the mother attends to her toddler. The teen daughter, meanwhile, is old enough to look after herself.
It's a simple plan, but if it is not communicated beforehand, there will be a great deal of confusion and worry in the event of a fire.
Have Two Ways Out of Every Room
Rule of thumb: every room should have at least two ways out. That way, if fire, heat, or smoke blocks one of the exits, occupants can still evacuate.
Note that 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.
Under such circumstances, a fire escape ladder is an ideal tool. And while it may sound a bit unwieldy, there are actually collapsible ladders that one can easily stow away under a bed or in a closet. Then, when a fire occurs, they can be attached to a window and allow safe egress from the burning building. To find one, check your local hardware store, or search online.
And remember: if you do opt to purchase a fire escape ladder, make sure that everybody in your household knows where they’re located for easy access.
Plan a Place to Meet
In the event of a disaster, confusion can spread like a disease among those victimized. For this reason, house fires rarely allow for an organized retreat, particularly if everyone is exiting the house from different points.
When this happens, families often become separated–causing some survivors to run back into the blaze to rescue their loved ones, unaware that the friend or family member in question has already left the building.
To avoid such a situation, designate a post-fire meeting point beforehand. That way, all friends and family members can be accounted for, keeping confusion and uncertainty at a minimum.
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, though, as these devices will not work in low-oxygen environments. (There’s a reason, after all, that firefighters wear self contained breathing apparatuses, or SCBA systems.) As such, a gas mask or hood should be treated as an escape and evasion tool.
A gas mask that 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 filter out dangerous chemical fumes that result when objects are burned and melted. (NOTE: The NBC-77 SOF is NOT rated to protect the user from smoke inhalation.)
By making sure that each of your family members has a mask, as well as thorough knowledge of how to wear and use it, you will significantly increase your loved ones' chances of survival during a house fire.
Practice Makes Perfect
Let us be clear: it is not enough to have discussed a house fire action plan once, three years ago. You need to keep your family updated, and regularly practice how you’re going to get out.
As a matter of fact, the American Red Cross recommends practicing a fire escape plan twice a year. By doing so, you will be a part of the mere 26% of Americans who can be considered truly prepared for a fire.
How to Escape
As previously discussed, you need an actionable house fire plan, as well as the right gear, strategically placed.
However, it is also important to know a few practical tips on what it takes to escape from a house fire in one piece, which we will outline below.
Never Use the Elevator
If you live in a multi-story apartment building, you've probably seen signs by the elevator, warning you to use the stairs in the event of a fire.
To be clear, this is very, very good advice.
By using the elevator, you risk being trapped in a burning building. What's more, the elevator shaft will function as a very capable chimney if a fire on a lower floor occurs, funneling smoke and heat all around the elevator cab. And to make matters worse, the electricity may not work either.
The end result will be death from asphyxiation or thermal injuries. By taking the stairs, you do not have to rely on anything other than your two legs to escape the burning building.
During a house fire, there are two very important scientific facts to bear in mind.
First, hot air rises. This means that smoke is going to stay close to the ceiling.
Secondly, oxygen is critical to the body's functioning. During a fire, it enables your brain to think rationally, and it gives your muscles the capability to move out of the house.
What these two facts underline is the importance of staying low to the ground, beneath the smoke. This will allow you to breathe more easily, and, consequently, think more clearly and move more efficiently.
Plus, breathing in a large amount of smoke leads to a wide range of long-term health consequences, like chronic emphysema, COPD, and bronchitis. So keep your head down!
Stop, Drop, and Roll
Just like your kindergarten teacher told you: if you catch on fire, you need to stop, drop, and roll.
Remember that fire needs oxygen to burn. By rolling on the ground, you help to starve the fire of that oxygen, smothering the flames.
Be Careful Before Opening a Door
Fires don't keep to normal business hours.
This means that you may well be sleeping in your bedroom with the door closed when your smoke detectors go off. If so, you need to ensure your safety before you attempt to open the door.
After all, if you just swing it 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.
So be sure to 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, of course, conducts heat.
What to do during your escape
If you live in a building full of people, there are a few things you can do to alert them to the danger of the fire–as well as minimize its spread–whilst you make good your escape.
Let’s take a look at each of them.
Close the Doors as You Make Your Way Out
As mentioned previously, fire feeds on oxygen. With this in mind, try to close the doors safely behind you as you leave. This will form a barrier that will block off oxygen to the fire.
To demonstrate what we're talking about, try to think back to the last time you went camping. During your last foray to the great outdoors, did you by any chance use a rocket stove?
To jog your memory, these are J-shaped stoves with a fire at the bottom of the “J.” Smoke exits through one of the top ends, while oxygen is sucked through the other. This design allows you to cook food with minimal fuel–demonstrating why you’re going to want to shut the door to your house or apartment building 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, this provides the fire a means to suck more oxygen into the home, causing the fire to burn hotter and grow larger–just like a rocket stove.
That's why we have emphasized shutting the door: to deny the fire of its oxygen.
In this way, you will significantly boost your chances of saving your home.
Pull the Fire Alarm
If you live in an apartment, it’s likely that there is a fire alarm on every floor. You already know the score: When you pull down on the handle, an alarm will sound throughout the entire apartment complex, alerting everyone that it's time to evacuate.
Without taking this action, your neighbors will have to wait for their smoke detectors to be triggered, and by that point, it may be too late. Remember: the presence of a smoke detector doesn’t inherently 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 buy you some time. Next, grab some type of cloth and wedge it under the door to block the smoke that will seep into your room otherwise. Use a towel, blanket, or coat–anything. Note that a wet cloth will do a much better job of blocking the smoke than it would if it were dry.
After that, call the fire department if you have the means to do so. Tell them not only your address, but also your precise location within the building.
Now, go to a window and open it without breaking it. After all, you need to be able to close the window if smoke starts billowing in from the outside. If the window is broken, this is not possible.
This window can serve a dual purpose: providing fresh air, as well as an opportunity to call for help. To signal people on the ground, yell as loudly as you can, wave your arms, wave a T-shirt, shine a flashlight–whatever it takes to be seen or heard.
This will help firemen to locate and rescue you in time.
Surviving a House Fire is Possible
Though daunting, a house fire is not, by necessity, a death sentence.
After all, there are guidelines and procedures you can follow, both before and during the event, that can greatly increase your odds of making it out of the house in one piece.
Much of this, of course, requires prior planning. So: install your smoke detectors now. Strategically place your fire extinguishers now. Come up with a plan now.
In other words, do not wait until it’s too late. When it comes to house fires, it is paramount that you strike preemptively–and by integrating the above tips into your preparedness routines, you’ll be able to do just that.