Surviving A House Fire

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As I write this, a four-story building in New York City is reported to have collapsed during an explosion and subsequent fire. Although details are sketchy at present, it made me think about what you should do in a circumstance like this to protect your family.

Every year, thousands of people are killed or injured in fires in the U.S. Many of these deaths and injuries can be prevented with knowledge of the nature of fire. You must understand the following:

1) Most people who die in fires don’t die because of burns as much as from asphyxiation (suffocation). Fire consumes available oxygen that you need to breathe, and produces harmful gases and smoke. Inhalation of even a small amount of these can disorient you and affect your ability to respond appropriately. Even if there is little smoke, some poisonous gases are invisible and odorless. Some people who die in bed appear to have not woken up at all, most likely a result of toxic inhalation.

2) Fire spreads rapidly. A small fire can go out of control in less than a minute if not extinguished rapidly. Many house fires occur at night when everyone is asleep. Smoke and flames can engulf an entire building before you are even aware of it. Sometimes, rooms can combust all at once, a phenomenon known as a “flashover“; opening hot doors can cause an explosive fire effect, called a “backdraft“.

3) The environment in a fire is dark, not bright as you might think. Black smoke can easily make it impossible to see clearly as well as cause eye irritation. This leads to confusion as to where the best avenues of escape might be.

4) Heat from a fire can burn you, even if you’re in a room that isn’t on fire itself. Breathing in super-heated air can burn your lung tissue and is more fatal than burns on the skin. Here’s my article on smoke inhalation:

5) Hot air rises. Most people understand this concept, but not the extremes you’d experience in a fire. Air that is just hot at floor level becomes much hotter at eye level. This is why you should stay close to the floor as you make your way out of the building.

6) People unwittingly feed fires by keeping flammable clutter around the house. Don’t collect old newspapers, for example, or other combustibles if at all possible, especially near heaters or stoves.

What To Do In A Fire

• Make it clear to everyone that there’s a fire. Hit the fire alarm or loudly yell “Fire!”. You should have previously identified at least two exits and conducted fire drills with your family so that they know exactly what to do.

• Get out fast as soon as it’s clear you can’t put out the fire easily with your fire extinguisher (you should have more than one placed in susceptible areas). Don’t wait to grab personal items, you might have only seconds to get out of there.

• As mentioned before, get down low and crawl to an exit to be least exposed to heat and smoke. Cover your nose and mouth with a cloth if possible. Covering your body with a wool blanket is an option, but not a wet one; it will conduct heat more quickly and burn you.

• Touch doorknobs to test them before opening. If the doorknob or door itself is hot, leave it closed and pick another exit. If the door isn’t hot, open it slowly and close it if fire or heavy smoke is present.

• Call 911 as soon as you exit the house if emergency services are available. If you are missing someone, tell the firefighters where they might be located in the building. Same with pets. Returning to a burning building to search for someone may be heroic, but it is also extraordinarily dangerous.

• If you are trapped in the building, close the door and cover any possible avenue for the fire to enter, such as vents and spaces between the door and the walls. If you can communicate with firefighters, let them know where you are, either by cell phone or by signaling for help from a window. Windows should not be secured in a fashion that prevents opening them in an emergency.

• If someone catches fire: stop, drop, and roll. Stop them immediately, drop them to the ground, and roll until the fire is out. Smother the flames with a towel or blanket if available. Remove burn clothing as soon as possible.

Many deaths and injuries from fires are preventable with a little planning and quick action. Be aware of the fire hazards in your home and work to eliminate them before a disaster strikes. In my next article, I will address the many ways this can be accomplished.

Joe Alton, MD


To find out what to do for over 100 issues you might encounter in a disaster, check out our Amazon bestseller “The Survival Medicine Handbook“, with over 200 5-star reviews!

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