Fire Drills and Escape Planning

The Chief’s Corner

Fire Safety Tips from James Levine,
Fire Chief of the Upper Saddle River Fire Department and
20 year veteran of the New Jersey fire service.

There’s a simple, yet serious question I continue to get from people concerned with home fire safety, “What do I do if my house catches fire?” Because the traumatic event of a house fire can be so incredibly confusing, it really is an excellent idea for you to do ahead of time what we do in the fire service: pre-plan and train. What do we mean by “pre-plan”? We are talking about going through all the sequential steps necessary to handle a potential emergency at a particular location. In your case, that would entail having a set of steps to follow in the event of a fire. And then, it would be important to then practice (or “train”) going through these steps. OK, now what are we talking about? And of course, let’s follow the K-I-S-S Rule (Keep it simple, stupid!)

The first element is having a smart fire escape plan.  Since time is our biggest enemy, rapid escape from your home is essential!  Your house can be filled with flames in just a matter of minutes, so guess what?  Yes, every second can make a difference.  By struggling with an escape route, you endanger yourself and your loved ones.  So know the best way out from every room in the home and have a back-up route in case that one is blocked.  Now practice your escape plan often- even monthly.  Involve the kids in this- they will probably enjoy it- and everyone else, even the family pet. Be smart and creative,  and while you’re at it, try this with your eyes closed or in the dark- having to feel your way out of the house- as you would if it was filled with smoke! This is definitely what I call, “effective training.”

There are some special considerations involved here, like rooms with only one door.  This might mean using a window exiting to a roof or folding/quick escape ladders may be necessary. And if you have any locked or barred doors or window, be sure you can unlock or release them quickly in case of emergency.

OK, so here we go:  your smoke alarm sounds (hopefully, you have them on every level of your home and test them often) or you notice smoke and/or fire in the house and you do what?  KISS Rule #1: You take the safest exit out.  If that means you have to go through smoke, remember what the kids learn in school-  stay low, even crawl under the smoke and make sure to cover your mouth- if you breath in smoke, which is filled with toxic gasses, you can become confused and be overcome- NOT GOOD!  So if you have to go through smoke, use a cloth to breathe through- even your clothing if need be.

KISS Rule #2: Let’s be careful on exiting not to open any closed doors until you feel them for heat.  Use the back of your hand to feel the door’s surface at the top- not with the front of your hand and not on the door knob.  A burnt hand will make things harder at this point.  Feel around the edge of the door.  If it is not hot, open the door SLOWLY.  If you are opening to heat and smoke, close the door and seek your alternate exit route immediately.  Stay calm and execute your pre-plan just as you did in practice, right?

KISS Rule #3:  Have a predetermined meeting place for all the occupants of your home and go there immediately.   You want to make sure that your meeting location is a safe distance away from the home. This might mean the mailbox or end of the driveway, the point is to get everyone out together and safely to this spot.  Then and only then do you call the fire department.  Use your cell phone or send someone to the neighbor’s house to call.  If you don’t already have the number programmed in your phone or in your head, call 9-1-1.  And here’s where it is very important to stay as calm as possible describing your location and the nature of the fire to the dispatcher.  The more information you can give, the better we can do our job on arrival at your home.  So tell the dispatcher what room or rooms are involved and where those rooms are in relation to the front door.  You might say, “The fire seems to be coming from the bedroom above the garage toward the rear right side of my house.”  Believe me, this is critical to the responding firefighters as they will be much better prepared to initiate attack in the right place and in the minimal amount of time.

KISS Rule #4:  Once you get everyone out of the house, STAY OUT.  Don’t go back in to get something you thing is important.  Nothing is more important and you have no idea how much the fire can progress from the time you exited.  The increased smoke will likely render you unconscious and the fire can cause collapse of the structure upon you.  Again, STAY OUT!  Wait for the fire department to arrive.  We like being greeted in front of the house, it warms our hearts!  Each year more than 4,000 Americans die in fires and approximately 25,000 are injured.  You don’t want to gamble with these statistics, right?

OK, I think you get the basics here, but one more thing:  educate your children about fire escape.  Construct your pre-plan and train with them.  And make sure they understand and do not fear firefighters.  In the event they do get trapped and we have to go get them, we don’t want them to hide from us.  Bring them to the firehouse one day when you see the trucks quietly out front and let them talk with the firefighters and show them the trucks.  It’s time well spent for them and the firefighters!

Questions?  Or thinking of becoming a volunteer firefighter?  E-mail Chief Levine at: