I wrote about how to survive a house fire back in 2017, when an apartment building in the Bronx, NY went up in flames, taking 12 lives. A tragic coincidence has me writing about the same issue in 2022, when another Bronx apartment building became an inferno and took at least 17 lives and injured dozens more. This time, the cause was a faulty space heater. In both instances, the fires occurred in deep winter, causing firefighters to work in freezing conditions.
Having written a lot about wildfires in the open West, the story made me think about what you should do to protect your family from becoming victims of a building fire.
The Nature Of Home Fires
Every year, millions are at risk for, and thousands of people are killed or injured by, fires in the U.S. Many of these deaths and injuries can be prevented with some knowledge of the nature of fire. You should understand the following six points:
1) Most people who die in fires don’t die because of burns as much as from asphyxiation (suffocation). This was the case with the recent Bronx fire, as people fleeing the burning apartment left the door again, allowing billows of smoke to permeate the 19 story building. Victims were found on almost every floor.
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. That doesn’t mean the bodies can’t have burns on them, but they are often not the cause of death.
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, making it possible for smoke and flames to engulf the 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 a fire effect called a “backdraft“, which appears similar to an explosion.
3) The environment in a fire is likely to be 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 lethal than burns on the skin.
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) Fire needs fuel (and oxygen) to survive and grow. People unwittingly feed fires by keeping all sorts of flammable clutter around the house. Don’t collect old newspapers or other combustibles, especially near heaters or stoves.
What To Do In A Fire
A plan of action made before a fire occurs will greatly increase the chances for survival. Here are some important considerations:
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. In the Bronx fire, fire alarms were working but the only reports to the fire department were about smoke alarms going off.
Get the heck out of there if it’s clear the fire isn’t the kind that can’t be doused easily by 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 safely leave.
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. Authorities often suggest wetting it, a good idea if you can do it quickly without delaying your leaving the building. Covering your body with a wool blanket is an option, but don’t use a wet one; when wet, wool will conduct heat more quickly and cause scald burns.
Once you’re at the exit, touch the doorknob or the door itself before opening. If very hot, leave it closed and pick another exit. If the door isn’t hot, open it slowly; close it if fire or heavy smoke is present.
Call 911 as soon as you exit the house. 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. One person was killed when he re-entered the building in the Bronx fire to look for more victims.
If someone catches fire: stop, drop, and roll. Stop them immediately, drop them to the ground, and roll them until the fire is out. Smother the flames with a thick towel or blanket if available.
Trapped in the Building
Many peoples’ worst nightmares involve being stuck in a burning building. There are a number of things, however, that you can do that will give you time until help arrives.
First, stay calm. People who are agitated may panic and make decisions that lead to very bad outcomes.
Do everything possible to let rescue personnel know you are there. If you can communicate with firefighters, let them know where you are, using either your cell phone or by signaling for help from a window. If possible, hang a sheet out to make it obvious where you are.
Speaking of windows, tear off any window treatments, like curtains. They are flammable and might prevent you from being seen. Make sure that your windows are not secured in a fashion that prevents opening them in an emergency.
If there’s a bathroom or sink, fill it with cold water and soak whatever cloth items are available. Use them to block the ventilation duct (turn the system off) and the spaces under and around doors. If you’re in a bedroom, soak the mattress and put it up against the door; secure with a chair.
If there’s a bathroom, there’s likely to be an exhaust fan. If it works, you can clear some smoke with it.
If you still can’t get out of the building and smoke is building up, wet a towel and cover your nose and mouth with it. Grip the towel with your mouth and breath through your nose (it’s a longer route to your lungs). Get down low to the ground, as mentioned above.
Given the cause of this deadly fire, I shouldn’t have to mention that extreme care should be taken when using space heaters. Also, if you’re in an old building, make sure that fire and smoke alarms work, and that any sprinkler system is still functional.
Many deaths and injuries from fires are preventable with a little planning and quick action. Be aware of fire hazards in your home and work to eliminate them before a disaster strikes.
Joe Alton MD
P.S. I have great respect for the firefighters who fought this huge blaze in freezing weather. They are true heroes.