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The Journal Gazette

Tuesday, December 05, 2017 1:00 am

Plan for fast escape from blaze

Elisabeth Leamy | Washington Post

If your house is on fire, how many minutes do you think you have to get out alive?

If you're like 80 percent of Americans surveyed, you'll say five or 10 minutes. Wrong. According to Underwriters Laboratories, which conducts state-of-the-art fire safety testing, you have three minutes or less.

“Most people underestimate the speed and power of fire and smoke,” according to the National Fire Protection Association.

You shouldn't fumble with the fire extinguisher, grab your photo albums or even rescue your cat. Get out!

That's what Audra Fordin did when a faulty electrical wire started a devastating fire in her Roslyn Heights, New York, home.

“When my husband yelled 'fire,' my body went into 'go' mode,” Fordin said. “I scooped up my three children and flew outside, hurdling 18 steps and two landings.”

Fordin said she would not have known to act so fast had it not been for a kindergarten project of her daughter's that required the family to do a home fire drill.

Underwriters Laboratories said that 30 years ago, you had up to 17 minutes to escape a house fire, but today's homes burn faster. Why? Open floor plans provide oxygen and don't provide barriers.

And synthetic building materials and furnishings burn at a much faster rate than the natural products used decades ago. UL videotaped a dramatic side-by-side experiment that showed how rapidly a modern living room went up in flames compared with a vintage one.

“You want to have an escape plan and practice it regularly because there is a limited time window to act,” said Stephen Kerber, director of UL's Firefighter Safety Research Institute. “We can't emphasize enough: If you can get out, get out.”

The stakes are high. Residential fires kill more people than any other kind, according to the Federal Emergency Management Administration. Roughly seven Americans die every day in house fires.

Some of those people die because they try to fight the fire themselves. Fire extinguishers are wonderful tools, but most of us don't know when or how to use them.

FEMA says you should use a fire extinguisher if:

You are trained in how to use the extinguisher.

You can put out the fire in five seconds or less.

The fire is small and contained – such as in a wastebasket.

There is no flammable debris or hazardous material nearby.

You have the right type of extinguisher for the type of fire.

There are two ways to exit the area quickly if you fail.

James Murua, fire marshal with the Fort Wayne Fire Department, said if you do have a fire, get out and then call 911. He said the fire department doesn't want people to fight fires. He said the goal should be getting out of the house safely.

Here are steps to take – before and during a fire – to increase your chances.

Before a fire

Interconnected smoke detectors. You should have smoke alarms in every sleeping room, outside each sleeping area and on every level of your home. And those alarms should be wirelessly connected to one another, so that if there's a fire in your basement, for example, the alarm in your bedroom will go off.

Two exits per room. Map out two ways to get out of every room in your house, even if one of them is a window, and keep those exits clear.

Family fire drills. Practice your evacuation plan so that everyone in the family not only knows how to get out, but also reverts to the plan instead of panicking during a fire.

Clear address numbers. Drive past your house at night and see if the address is clearly visible from the street for emergency crews to find you. If not, install better numbers or lighting.

Close doors while you sleep. Fires that break out while you are sleeping can be particularly devastating. Closing your door keeps smoke out and temperatures down, giving you precious extra minutes to evacuate.

Designate a meeting place. Everyone in the family should know of a spot nearby – but out of fire range – where you will meet if you evacuate separately in a fire.

During a fire

Block smoke: If you are stuck in a room, close the doors and windows, and put wet fabric over openings where smoke can get in.

Get low: Bend way down or crawl as you evacuate because smoke rises.

Check doors: Look for smoke and feel for heat at closed doors, a sign that there's fire on the other side. If so, exit through another door or window.

Close doors and windows behind you. Close doors and windows as you escape to minimize the amount of oxygen that can fuel the fire.

Exit windows wisely. Crawl out backward facing the house. Then lower yourself until you are hanging from the window sill. This puts your feet as close to the ground as possible before you drop.

Don't go back in. Instead, alert firefighters so they can rescue people trapped inside.

Terri Richardson of The Journal Gazette contributed to this story.