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How to Escape a Burning Building

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In 2010, fire departments across the US responded to a total of 384,000 home fires. These fires caused $7.5 billion damage each year, killed 2,640 people, and injured another 13,350—that's a death every 169 minutes and an injury every half hour. Here's how to prevent your family from becoming part of that statistic.

How Home Fire Spreads

To know how to best escape a fire, you need to think like a fire. You need to know what a fire needs to survive, grow and spread throughout a structure in order to maximize your chances of successful escape.


For a fire to start, three elements must be present: a heat source to provide the initial catalytic energy, such as spark or cinder; plenty of oxygen; and any sort of combustible as a fuel source. In the US, cooking remains the primary source of home fires, and the primary source of fire-related injury. Dropped cigarettes, on the other hand, have been the number one source of fire-related deaths since 2005. Fun Fact: Men started 64 percent of the fires in 2010 and caused nearly double the property damage ($4.8 billion vs $2.7 billion caused by women).

Once ignition occurs, a fire will continue to burn and spread as long as it has a continuous supply of fuel and oxygen. It will always spread into cooler areas following the flow of heat, and it doesn't take long for heat to spread. On average, a house fire can raise the interior temperature to over 1100-degrees F in just 3.5 minutes—note that your goose is cooked, quite literally, at 350 F. And in five minutes, the air in a room can get so hot that everything in it spontaneously combusts, a phenomenon known as flashover, even if actual flames are not present. That means you and yours are working with roughly a 210 second window of opportunity.


Be Prepared

When it comes to home fire response, live by the Boy Scouts of America motto. Taking the proper preventative measures and knowing what to do if a fire does break out can help minimize damage and maximize your chances of survival.

Prevention is as easy as being aware of your surroundings. Don't place open candles near fuel sources like drapes or waste paper baskets. Certainly don't leave them unattended. Don't leave newspapers near space heaters or other heat sources, and don't smoke in bed, or anywhere in your house, for that matter.

If a fire does break out, you'll want to know as soon as possible so you can hopefully knock it out before it gets out of hand. To do so, install fire and carbon monoxide alarms in every bedroom, as well as the kitchen, the attic, and the basement. Check these alarms annually and replace the individual units every few years. Also keep a couple of fire extinguishers stashed around the house—in the kitchen, garage, and bedroom—and know how to use them. These need to be checked annually and serviced by trained professionals.


However, if a fire starts when your family is asleep, it may burn out of control before you become aware of it. In case this occurs, every family member should learn and memorize at least two potential exits from every room in the house—the normal route for entering and exiting (typically through the front door) as the primary route as well as an alternative door or window. Study each escape route for potential hazards such as sticky window, security bars that require tools to open, or heavy furniture, and adjust these routes accordingly. And remember, even with every light in the house on, a structure fire can create blackout conditions within the home in just four minutes. So make the outside routes as direct as possible.

Also be sure to assign which able bodies will be in charge of helping the very young, the elderly, and pets to escape. In addition, stick a pet rescue alert on any clean glass surface near the front door to alert first responders to your pets' existence. If you have children, you must impress upon them the importance of using an alternate escape route if the primary is blocked and not hiding in a closet or under the bed. Explain that this will make it much harder for firefighters to find them. And once you've created a plan, practice it with your kids.


Another helpful habit is for everyone to shut their bedroom doors at night. This not only gives you more privacy, but can also delay the spread of fire and smoke into the room by as much as twenty minutes. What's more, fire alarms will still detect smoke with the door closed.

You've Gotta Keep Your Head on a Swivel

Fires and people compete for the same vital resource: oxygen. But people are at a disadvantage because a lack of oxygen makes us dumb and sleepy—two qualities you really don't need when escaping the flames. 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 rate increases with exertion, increase in heart rate, impaired coordination, perception, and judgment.
10-12% Oxygen Level — Breathing further increases in rate and depth, 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 occurs.


The lack of oxygen isn't the only gaseous danger you'll face. As fires expand, they generate thick plumes of acrid, toxic black smoke that obscures your vision and wreaks havoc on your lungs. Carbon monoxide, for example, is an odorless and highly-stupefying gas, causing mental impairment on par with alcohol intoxication when inhaled in even modest amounts. If you're already asleep when a fire breaks out, spreading CO gas can drop you into such a deep slumber that not even the intense heat of approaching flames will be enough to rouse you (a fire alarm, however, will). In fact, more people die each year from smoke inhalation than do from the actual flames.

Get Down

There's a silver lining to these clouds of noxious gasses—the heat of the fire forces them all to rise, which clears a low area of relatively clean air to breathe near the floor. So, as Arnold Schwarzenegger put it, "GET DOWN." If you're in bed when the fire alarm sounds, roll out of bed and onto the floor before crawling quickly to your primary exit option. If that option is your bedroom door (which should be closed), check it before you open it by placing the back of your hand against the door itself, the knob, and the crack on the hinged side next to the frame. If any of those points feel warm, bail on that exit strategy and immediately move on to your secondary option. And even if they're cool, brace your shoulder against the door before you twist the handle to prevent the door from blowing open due to air pressure differences on either side.


If you need to travel through a smoke-filled room to reach safety, you can further protect yourself from damaging gasses by wrapping 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 you find both your primary and secondary routes cut off, look for a window. If you have to break the pane to open it, smash out the lower corners with a blunt, heavy object, then cover the exposed edges with clothing, bedding or cushions before going through. If you're on the ground floor, toss a few cushions out to help break your landing. If you need to get your family out of a second story window, lower your kids as far as possible before dropping them to a waiting adult below.


Get Out and Stay Out

All your hard work and planning will be for naught if someone is left behind and no one realizes that they are still in danger. That's why you need a designated meeting spot outside the house. It should be safely away from danger but close enough for everyone to reach quickly.


If you do realize that someone is missing, do not reenter the home to look for them. You are not a firefighter. Do not try to do a firefighter's job without a firefighter's equipment, training, or solid steel balls. If you do, the real firefighters will more than likely be pulling two bodies from the ashes.

Once everyone is accounted for, get medical attention for anyone that needs its. Look for signs of oxygen deprivation—ie, your eight-year-old is stumbling around like a wee drunkard. Once the fire is under control, ask the fire firefighters or a neighbor for help notifying your insurance company, emergency contacts, or the Red Cross for emergency lodging.


[CDC - eHow - Arietha - FEMA - Crookston MN Fire Dept - NFPA - Wikipedia - Image: Ronald Caswell / Shutterstock