Learn more about Fire Prevention Week
FPW 2007: Practice Your Escape Plan
NFPA Journal®, September/October 2007
By John Nicholson
On average, every three and a half hours someone in the
The theme for Fire Prevention Week 2007 is “Practice Your Escape Plan! ” From October 7 to October 13, fire safety advocates across the country will be spreading the word that when it comes to escape plans, practice is key. Include everyone in your home and make a home escape plan making provisions for anyone who has a specific need. Eighteen to 24-year-olds are the least likely to have even developed an escape plan. Practice your plan at least twice a year. Your ability to get out depends on advance warning from smoke alarms and advance planning.
According to Judy Comoletti, assistant vice president of Public Education at NFPA, you should plan regular fire drills to ensure that everyone knows exactly what to do when the smoke alarm sounds. Hold a drill at night to make sure that sleeping family members awaken at the sound of the alarm. More than half of all home fire deaths result from incidents reported between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. But only 20 percent of home fires occur between those hours.
Practice, practice, practice
Pull together everyone in your household and make a plan. Walk through your home and inspect all possible exits and escape routes. Households with children should consider drawing a floor plan of your home, marking two ways out of each room, including windows and doors. Also, mark the location of each smoke alarm. Allow children to master fire escape planning and practice before holding a fire drill at night when they are sleeping. The objective is to practice, not to frighten, so telling children there will be a drill before they go to bed can be as effective as a surprise drill.
Although children five and under make up about 7 percent of the country’s population, they accounted for 12 percent of the home fire deaths, assigning them a risk almost twice that of an average person. It’s important to determine during the drill whether children and others can readily waken to the sound of the smoke alarm. If they fail to awaken, make sure that someone is assigned to wake them up as part of the drill and in a real emergency situation.
Research studies have shown that some children may not awaken to the sound of the smoke alarm. Dr. Dorothy Bruck, a psychologist at
In subsequent research, Dr. Bruck found that raising the sound level at the children's head made only a limited difference at best. In a presentation to the fourth Asia-Oceania Symposium on Fire Science and Technology in 2000, Dr. Bruck and fellow researcher Angela Bliss reported their findings from a study of 28 children between the ages of 6 and 15. In two tests, the children were exposed to an 89-decibel alarm; half slept through one or both tests. Among the 6 to 10 year olds, that percentage climbed to 71 percent. When children did wake, they were groggy for several minutes, a factor that might well have impaired their ability to make life-saving decisions in a true emergency. Put simply, louder, closer alarms were unlikely to solve the problem.
When planning, always choose the escape route that is safest – the one with the least amount of smoke and heat – but be prepared to escape under toxic smoke if necessary. When you do your fire drill, everyone in the family should practice getting low and going under the smoke to your exit. Closing doors on your way out slows the spread of fire, giving you more time to safely escape.
Everyone in the household must understand the escape plan. When you walk through your plan, check to make sure the escape routes are clear and doors and windows can be opened easily. If windows or doors in your home have security bars, make sure that the bars have emergency release devices inside so that they can be opened immediately in an emergency. Emergency release devices won’t compromise your security - but they will increase your chances of safely escaping a home fire.
The metal bars that some people put on their windows and doors for security can trap them inside during a fire. Make sure the metal bars a quick release mechanism for escape.
If there are infants, older adults, or family members with mobility limitations, make sure that someone is assigned to assist them in the fire drill and in the event of an emergency. Assign a backup person too, in case the designee is not home during the emergency.
Be fully prepared for a real fire: when a smoke alarm sounds, get out immediately. If your home has two floors, every family member (including children) must be able to escape from the second floor rooms. Escape ladders can be placed in or near windows to provide an additional escape route. Review the manufacturer’s instructions carefully so you’ll be able to use a safety ladder in an emergency. Practice setting up the ladder from a first floor window to make sure you can do it correctly and quickly. Children should only practice with a grown-up, and only from a first-story window. Store the ladder near the window, in an easily accessible location. You don’t want to have to search for it during a fire.
Residents of high-rise and apartment buildings may be safer using a staged evacuation or relocation strategy. Staged evacuation is commonly in the plan for high-rise buildings. An advantage of staged evacuation is that only those occupants in immediate danger –normally defined as those on the fire floor as well as those on the floors immediately above and below the fire floor are directed to use the exit stairs. The fewer people in the stairs, the more quickly occupants can exit or relocate to other floors, yielding shorter queues at the stair entrances. Staged evacuation requires continuous monitoring of the incident to determine if the evacuation of additional occupants will be necessary. The fire department or designated fire safety officer should always be involved in staging operations.
Where staged evacuation is used, the location of the fire or other incident in the building is identified, and only those occupants who might be immediately threatened are notified to leave the building. The remaining occupants are typically notified that an emergency has been reported in the building and they are to await further instructions.
Once you’re out, stay out. Under no circumstances should you ever go back into a burning building. If someone is missing, inform the fire department dispatcher when you call. Firefighters have the skills and equipment to perform rescues.
It is important to choose an outside meeting place (i.e. neighbor’s house, a light post, mailbox, or stop sign) a safe distance in front of your home where everyone can meet after they’ve escaped. Make sure to mark the location of the meeting place on your escape plan.
Prepare for the fire department and have everyone memorize the emergency phone number of the fire department. That way any member of the household can call from a neighbor’s home or a cellular phone once safely outside. Also make sure your home is visible. Go outside to see if your street number is clearly evident from the road. If not, paint it on the curb or install house numbers to ensure that responding emergency personnel can find your home.
In some cases, smoke or fire may prevent you from exiting your home or apartment building. To prepare for an emergency like this, practice “sealing yourself in for safety” as part of your home fire escape plan. Close all doors between you and the fire. Use duct tape or towels to seal the door cracks and cover air vents to keep smoke from coming in. If possible, open your windows at the top and bottom so fresh air can get in. Call the fire department to report your exact location. Wave a flashlight or light-colored cloth at the window to let the fire department know where you are located.
Practice your home fire escape plan twice a year, making the drill as realistic as possible.
Sounding the alarm
Based on a telephone survey done in 2004, 96 percent of all homes have at least one smoke alarm. According to the survey, only 8 percent of people said their first thought on hearing a smoke alarm would be to get out. Because fire can grow and spread so quickly, having working smoke alarms in your home can mean the difference between life and death.
For the 2007 edition of NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm Code®, the Technical Committee for Chapter 11, Single- and Multiple-Station Alarms and Household Fire Alarm Systems, made a number of changes to promote the use of additional interconnected smoke alarms throughout dwellings and to address new technology issues.
In past editions, requirements for the installation of smoke alarms in bedrooms and for the interconnection of smoke alarms (that is, when one sounds, they all sound) were restricted to new construction.
The Technical Committee changed the Code to require a uniform set of installation requirements regardless of occupancy age. It has always been the recommendation for all construction that smoke alarms be located in bedrooms as well as outside of each separate sleeping area and on each level of a dwelling unit. The interconnection of all alarms in the dwelling also assures that an alarm signal meeting the Code will be provided in the bedrooms regardless of the location of the first sounding smoke alarm, which may be two floors away from the sleeping area. These changes are partly enabled by new wireless technologies that permit battery-operated smoke alarms to be interconnected.
Mount smoke alarms high on walls or ceilings (remember, smoke rises). Ceiling mounted alarms should be installed at least four inches away from the nearest wall; wall-mounted alarms should be installed four to 12 inches away from the ceiling. If you have ceilings that are pitched, install the alarm near the ceiling’s highest point. Don’t install smoke alarms near windows, doors, or ducts where drafts might interfere with their operation and never paint smoke alarms. Paint, stickers, or other decorations could keep the alarms from working.
Check your smoke alarms regularly
But these life-saving devices are only effective when they’re working properly. Follow manufacturers’ instructions, generally smoke alarms with batteries that are dead, disconnected, or missing can’t alert you to the dangers of smoke and fire. Test your smoke alarms at least once a month, following the manufacturer’s instructions and replace the batteries in your smoke alarm once a year, or when the alarm “chirps” warning that the battery is low.
Some alarms are equipped with large, easy to push test buttons. Alarms that can be tested by using a flashlight or television remote are particularly helpful for people with mobility disabilities, people who are blind or have low vision, or for older adults.
Alarms with a 10-year lithium battery eliminate the problem of having to change batteries. The battery is supposed to last the life of an alarm, which is 10 years. Ten-year battery alarms still need to be tested in accordance with manufacturers’ instructions at least once a month.
Regularly vacuum or dust your smoke alarms, following the manufacturer’s instructions. This can keep them working properly.
Never “borrow” a battery from a smoke alarm. Smoke alarms can’t warn you of fire if their batteries are missing or if they have been disconnected. Don’t disable smoke alarms–even temporarily.
Sadly, incidents of fire and fire fatalities due to missing batteries are numerous. In March, 2007 New York City Firefighters battled a three-alarm fire in the Highbridge section of the Bronx. The fire claimed the lives of nine children and one adult. Eight additional civilians were injured in the blaze. Fire marshals determined the fire started on the first floor and was caused by an overheated space heater appliance cord. Two smoke alarms were found in the building, but they did not contain batteries.
If your smoke alarm is sounding “nuisance alarms,” try relocating it farther from kitchens or bathrooms, where cooking fumes and steam can cause the alarm to sound. Nuisance alarms can discourage people from using smoke alarms.
Reasons for smoke alarm failure
Overall, three-quarters of all U.S. homes have at least one working smoke alarm. The 2000-2004 statistics derived from the Version 5.0 of the U.S Fire Administration’s National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) and NFPA’s annual fire department experience survey show that
In more than half of the reported fires in which the smoke alarms did not operate, batteries were missing or disconnected. Nuisance alarms were the leading reason for disconnecting smoke alarms. Roughly one of every five smoke alarm failures was due to dead batteries. Only 7 percent of the failures were due to hard-wired power source problems. Hard-wired smoke alarms operate on your household electrical current. Alarms that are hard-wired should have battery backup in case of a power outage, and should be installed by a qualified electrician.
Sprinklers and smoke alarms together cut your risk of dying in a home fire 82 percent relative to having neither – a savings of thousands of lives a year.
According to the June 2007 U.S. Experience with Sprinklers and Other Automatic Fire Extinguishing Equipment, automatic extinguishing systems are reported in only 1 percent of fires in one- or two-family dwellings and only 8 percent of fires in apartments. Clearly, there is great potential for expanded use. The National Residential Fire Sprinkler Initiative of the U.S. Fire Administration reported in 2003 that no more than 2 percent of all new residences were then being protected with residential sprinkler systems. This very low proportion of sprinkler-protected new residences suggests that sprinklers continue to have only a token presence in dwellings. The initiative hopes to increase interest in residential sprinkler systems among builders, developers, community officials, and especially homeowners.
The Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition, formed in 1996, has developed a variety of educational materials about the benefits of home fire sprinklers. These materials address common questions and misconceptions. They may be accessed through their Web site http://www.homefiresprinkler.org.
Older adults and people with disabilities
Older adults are also at greater risk of dying in a home fire than the population at large. Adults 65 and older face a risk twice that of the average person, while people 85 and older have a risk that is over four times that of the average person.
To increase fire safety for older adults, NFPA offers the following guidelines:
If you don’t live in an apartment building, consider sleeping in a room on the ground floor in order to make emergency escape easier. Make sure that smoke alarms are installed in every sleeping room and outside sleeping areas. Have a telephone installed where you sleep in case of emergency. When looking for an apartment or high-rise home, look for one with an automatic sprinkler system. Sprinklers can extinguish a home fire in less time that it takes for the fire department to arrive.
Conduct your own, or participate in, regular fire drills to make sure you know what to do in the event of a home fire. If you or someone you live with cannot escape alone, designate a member of the household to assist, and decide on backups in case the designee isn’t home. Fire drills are also a good opportunity to make sure that everyone is able to hear and respond to smoke alarms.
Make sure that you are able to open all doors and windows in your home. Locks and pins should open easily from inside. (Some apartment and high-rise buildings have windows designed not to open.) If you have security bars on doors or windows, they should have emergency release devices inside so that they can be opened easily. These devices won’t compromise your safety, but they will enable you to open the window from inside in the event of a fire. Check to be sure that windows haven’t been sealed shut with paint or nailed shut; if they have, arrange for someone to break the seals all around your home or remove the nails.
Keep a telephone nearby, along with emergency phone numbers so that you can communicate with emergency personnel if you’re trapped in your room by fire or smoke.
‘Great American Fire Drill’
During Fire Prevention Week 2007, NFPA is asking kids and families all across
Fire departments are being asked to throw a Great American Fire Drill Party. To make this activity work, you will need to have lots of teachers on board as well as the participation of members of your fire department. It will take some planning, but it can be great. The objective is to get local families to practice their escape plan and be recognized for doing so. If families make a plan and never practice, they aren’t really safe; this activity can help. For more information, visit firepreventionweek.org.