From as early as preschool, Americans are taught about the importance of creating a fire plan — essentially an escape route for the family to follow in the event of a disaster. But despite the robust public information campaigns aimed at kids and adults alike, a scant 26 percent of families actually have a fire plan, according to the Red Cross. That leaves many parents unprepared, because “grab the kids and get the hell out,” is not enough. In 2016, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reported 475,500 structure fires resulting in 2,950 civilian deaths. A home fire is reported every 90 seconds, on average. And due to materials in modern furniture made and the popularity of lighter lumber in homes, fires currently ignite and spread much faster than in the past.
“You may have as little as two minutes to escape safely, so you have to know how to use that time wisely,” says NFPA communications director Susan McKelvey. “That’s why home escape planning is so important: It gives you the practice and planning to function in a real incident. If you know what you’re supposed to do, and you know that everybody else in your home knows what to do, you’re making the most of your time to make sure you’re effectively and efficiently getting out the door.”
That efficiency is the key. So a fire plan should include some essential basics: make sure every sleeping area has two clear exits (windows can be exits too), keep smoke alarms fully functioning, and establish a meeting place to ensure every member of the family is accounted for once they leave the house.
Once that plan is established, it’s not enough to simply talk to family members about what to do. It requires practice and repetition. If the smoke alarms go off in the middle of the night, everybody in the house should be able to avoid panic and get out of the house to the rally point as soon as possible. This practice can even be played as a game with the kids. But parents need to stress the goal is to get out, following the rules, to the rendezvous. No hiding in closets or under beds.
But getting out of the house can be a big part of the battle. So that needs to be practiced too. First, there should be one adult in the home designated to carry out or guide small children. That way there is no arguing or confusion. Family members should react to the alarm right away by getting low, under the smoke and toxic fumes. If they are in a room away from the fire, they should follow the escape route through the primary exit.
Sometimes, however, primary escape routes can be blocked by debris or fire itself. If a door is closed and the surface, handle or air through the cracks of the door feel hot, the secondary exit comes into play. If these exits are on upper floors, parents should think of investing in fire ladders that can installed on the outside of the house, or attached to a windowsill and stored discreetly. Barring that, adults can lower kids out of second story windows to a waiting spouse or another adult.
These escapes need to be second nature. The NFPA, which provides a helpful guide for making a detailed plan, stresses the importance of practicing twice annually to see how people perform and strengthening response times.
A good plan ends outside with all accounted for. More importantly fire safety official stress it never includes returning to the house for heirlooms, valuables and — most difficult to fathom — pets and missing family members. That’s why a safe meeting place outside the home is so important. People have a natural urge to race back into a burning building to search for anyone who might be trapped.
“There have been tragic incidents where somebody goes back into a burning building to save someone, and then the person they thought was inside is actually outside,” says McKelvey, stressing again the importance of a common meeting place. “Those are heartbreaking scenarios. It’s a hard message to hear, but once you’re outside, stay outside.”
And what goes for home, should apply to structures outside the home too. That’s not to say that parents should formulate and practice an evacuation plan every time they stay in a rental, but they should be aware of their surroundings.
“Have a sense of situational awareness wherever you are, whether it’s in your home, whether you’re in an AirBNB or a mall or a movie theater: Know where your exits are and how to get out in an emergency situation,” says McKelvey.
Anyone who has become part of fire statistics can attest to the value of preparedness.