Fire doesn’t discriminate. It can happen to anyone, and it can happen fast. That’s why having an escape plan for you and the people you live with — whether they are your roommates, your family or just you — is an important element of preparedness.
Having a home fire escape plan is perhaps more important now than ever. Joe Thomas, Maine State Fire Marshal, said that studies show that homeowners have even less time than they once did to escape a house fire.
In recent fire behavior tests conducted by Underwriters Laboratories, a century-old consumer safety certification company, rooms furnished with modern synthetic materials went from zero to ignition of most exposed combustible materials in the area in under four minutes. Rooms furnished with so-called “legacy furnishing materials” from the 1970s and 80s, which were made primarily of natural materials like wool, cotton and metal, took 29 minutes to ignite.
“As a result of the materials modern furnishings are made of, the dynamics of fire have changed considerably,” Thomas said. “Clearly, the time available for a person to escape from a fire in their home is critical to their survival.”
The first step, Thomas said, is to plan ahead. Make sure you have fire safety equipment like fire extinguishers and smoke detectors, which should ideally be in every room, but at least where you will be able to hear them if you are sleeping. Make sure the smoke detectors are Underwriters Laboratories, or UL, certified, and that they are in good working order (smoke detectors with lithium batteries should last around ten years, Thomas said).
“When there is a fire, smoke spreads fast,” Thomas said. “Working smoke alarms give you early warning so you can get outside quickly. If there are infants, older adults, family members with mobility limitations or children who do not wake to the sound of the smoke alarm, make sure that someone is assigned to assist them in the event of an emergency.”
Then, sit down with all the members of your household to plan a way out of the house in case of a fire. Thomas said that the key is to determine two ways out of every room in the home, whether through a door or window.
“If the window is the secondary means of escape, then it must be determined how best a safe escape can be accomplished,” Thomas said. “If the window [exits] onto another roof area, then that can be built into the plan with added steps for getting down to the ground. If the window has no other means for getting to the ground, an escape ladder can be installed that allows for one to safely climb down.”
Thomas said that everyone should practice opening their windows to become familiar with their operation and repair jammed windows regularly (though he added that during a fire, jammed windows can be broken out with a heavy object and a blanket or towel can be used to protect the escapee from glass shards). Also, he said to make a habit of sleeping with bedroom doors closed.
“It takes fire 10 to 15 minutes to burn through a wooden door,” Thomas said. “That is 10 to 15 minutes more for the inhabitant to escape.”
Once you have identified the routes to escape, establish a central meeting place a safe distance from the house.
“It could be a mailbox, the neighbor’s driveway or a large tree in the yard,” Thomas said. “Whatever it is, it must be stationary and won’t be moved, such as a car. It prevents family members from wandering around the neighborhood looking for one another, or worse, being tempted to re-enter the burning house for one thought to be trapped inside. Under no circumstances should anyone re-enter the burning building.”
Providing adequate fire safety for individuals with physical disabilities can be challenging. Having physical or mental disabilities does not mean that you can not keep your family safe from fire. In the escape planning of your home, build your home plan around the family’s abilities. Increase the margin of safety in any way that you can. In the most difficult cases where actual escape may be in question, consider the installation of a residential home fire sprinkler system.
Once you have a fire escape plan, it is important to practice it. Thomas recommended practicing as a household at least twice a year.
“A good way to practice is to position each family member in his or her bed, turn all the lights off and activate the smoke detector by depressing the test switch,” Thomas said. “Each family member should help ‘awaken’ the others by yelling the alert. Family members should exit their rooms according to the plan, crawl low under smoke, practice feeling doors for heat and meet in the designated location outside the home.”