In two recent house fires in Wichita and Pratt, six people died, including four small children.
In both fires, some people were able to escape without serious injuries.
There’s a tendency, Wichita fire Lt. Jose Ocadiz said, for people to think a fire “can never happen to me.”
But at this time of year, with people lighting candles and fireplaces, and using other heating and lighting sources, it might be a good time for people to think through and practice what they would do to escape a fire.
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Wichita ended 2013 with 11 fire deaths, a little more than twice the average.
Fire departments have stressed the need for evacuation plans for more than 40 years, said Wichita Fire Marshal Brad Crisp. But probably only a minority of people have a plan and practice it, he said.
Crisp pointed to a National Fire Protection Association survey that found that “only one-third of Americans have both developed and practiced a home fire escape plan.”
Crisp wants people to remember this: With few exceptions, like an interior bathroom, there are two ways out of any room. It’s human nature for people to resort to a route they know best, like the hallway leading to the front door, when maybe the quickest, safest route to escaping the heat and smoke is through a window.
“Windows can be a very effective way of getting out,” Crisp said.
Still, “You have to have a plan,” he said.
Make sure it is workable. Is the escape window painted over? Have you practiced opening it? Can you open it in the dark, half-awake? Can you climb onto a roof? Do you need a roll-up ladder?
After you think through the options, you need to practice, Crisp said. That means drilling on an escape at night, during the day, as you awake from sleeping, from your bedroom, from the kitchen, from the basement – “because you don’t know when an emergency is going to happen,” Crisp said.
“You have seconds, literally seconds, about what you are going to do.”
Without a familiar plan, he said, “you panic … and typically we don’t make very good choices.”
Ocadiz, the Wichita lieutenant who works in the fire prevention unit, said a family needs to drill to the point “that muscle memory takes over.”
‘Get low and go’
One of the department’s basic messages during elementary school presentations is “Get low and go.” “Low” because the smoke and gases that overcome people tend to be higher. “Go” because time is critical, and a child might not have an adult available to help in an escape.
Crisp and Ocadiz said parents need to tell their children what they expect them to do in a fire. The children need to understand that if their parents can’t reach them, they need to be able to escape on their own.
Practice gives children confidence that they can do it, Ocadiz said. When Ocadiz and other firefighters go into elementary schools, they often ask children to do some homework by drawing a diagram of their house and asking their parents about an escape plan.
Firefighters tell people to close doors behind them to keep the heat and smoke from spreading faster. Air flow feeds the fire.
“Smoke alarms buy you time,” Crisp said. Alarms should be tested once a month, and batteries should be replaced twice a year.
“If you never wake up, your plan” never has a chance to work, he said.
He and Ocadiz recommend that parents set off alarms in the middle of the night to see whether their children wake up.
Children should get special consideration in evacuation plans because, depending on their age, limitations or disabilities, they might not be able to evacuate on their own.
Small children can have a tendency to hide if they light a fire, Crisp said. To them, they’re hiding from “the bad thing,” or they’re hiding because they think they’re in trouble. It makes children hard to find when seconds count.
The right route
When you think of escape routes, realize that some aspects of your home can be places to avoid in a fire.
A staircase, for example, becomes a chimney for smoke and heat.
To emphasize the deadly speed of a fire, Crisp noted that a fire in a couch or Christmas tree can lead to a flashover fire in a living room in 45 seconds. Flashover is the point at which everything ignites simultaneously because of building heat.
“That’s 1,200 degrees from floor to ceiling,” Crisp said. Not even firefighters in special gear can survive that.
Thick black smoke from floor to ceiling signals that flashover is imminent.
If you see smoke and have any question about whether you can pass through it, don’t go toward it, Crisp said.
“Follow your gut. Get out while you can. Close the door behind you, and call 911.”
Smoke disorients you even in a room you are familiar with. Firefighters train to be able to fight fires while essentially blind. Recruits get their masks taped over so they can’t see. They get spun around so they are disoriented.
Smoke is blinding even during the day.
“It’s not like what people see in the movies,” Crisp said. “You can’t see 10 feet.”
Firefighters learn how to use a wall to keep their bearing. With their tools pressed against a wall, as extensions, they use their legs and arms to reach out for victims.
Rather than use compass directions, firefighters use “A, B, C, D” as orientation points in any structure. A is the address side of the structure. The letters change in a clockwise movement.
When you get out, the next crucial step is having a designated safe place to meet, so everyone can be accounted for. Firefighters need to know as soon as possible whether they need to go into search-and-rescue mode.
To speed up the decision, fire officials recommend that families meet in a front yard if possible, where they are more visible to the first crews that arrive.
If someone is trapped in a bedroom, firefighters on the outside – using the most direct route – would break out a window, test the floor, close the door and search, Ocadiz said. Firefighters often find victims near windows and doors.
And one last thing: Once out, stay out.