We’ve all thought about it, we’ve all heard the warnings to replace smoke detectors. Countless fire drills/alarms at school and work. We’ve all been a part of Fire Prevention Week, either as a parent or a child. But are any of us listening?

I’ve been in the fire service for 10 years, and one thing I’ve learned is that there is no such thing as being “overly-prepared.”  But that’s for me as a firefighter. What about civilians? How can a civilian prepare for a fire?

Separation from the source

First things first: get away from the fire! This seems pretty obvious; however when the shit hits the fan, people will be scrambling everywhere & anywhere. Relax. Take a few deep breaths. And get away from the fire. This could be as simple as closing a door or getting to the other side of the hallway. Once you create a space between the fire and yourself, your chances of survival skyrocket.

Second: now that you’re temporarily safe (yes, fires can move through closed doors), you have two choices. Stay put, or escape. How do you decide which? This is where situational awareness comes into play. Are you at your office, where you’ve worked for three years? You should know the emergency exit route. Are you in a mall that you’ve never been to? Are you in an airport? This makes evacuation less clear. If you are able to safely identify a route out of the building, take everyone you are with and GET OUT! However, if you have no idea where you are, the last thing you want to do is get even more lost. Just remember, you have no idea what could be on the other side of a door, but a window is quite transparent! Find a window. What is outside of it? What floor are you on? Can you signal for help from people outside? Could you make the jump if you really needed to?

Escape from the building

Third, find water! Not to put on the fire, however; chances are you’re beyond that. However, a handkerchief/shirt sleeve soaked in water can serve as a sufficient “SCBA” (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus) during your escape. Not only will this filter out some of the toxins in the air, but it will also cool the air you breathe. Scorched lungs sound awful. Know where the water fountain/sinks are. Keep a water bottle in your desk/purse.

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Fourth, and most importantly: STAY LOW! Heat rises…I’ve seen pretty much every episode of “Rescue Me” plus “Backdraft,” and if you have too, you’ll know that these guys walk around in a fire. No masks, no gloves. NONSENSE. Stay as low as possible. Not only will you be avoiding extreme heat and carcinogens, but you will be able to see! In a fully involved fire, the difference in visibility between 6” off the floor, and 18” off the floor is incredible. Try and keep yourself to a low crawl, and ensure others are doing the same.

Fifth, and as important as fourth: STAY TOGETHER! I’ve heard all sorts of horror stories of two firefighters getting lost in an 8×10 room; it’s surprisingly easy to do, especially under stress. If you are with young children, take your belt off, loop it around your leg, and have them hold on and follow. As you can imagine, this will be very frightening for a young child (I’ve seen grown men lose their shit) so keep talking to them. Yelling to them. Whatever, just let them know, you aren’t leaving without them!!

Sixth: How to help others. You know where your exfil is, you know how to get there. You also know that Steve from Accounting didn’t make it out yet. Find a broom (or something of similar size) and search a room. By keeping your feet on the wall (NEVER LOSE YOUR WALL), you can stretch out and cover an entire room with your body and a broom.

In review

-What did we learn? How will this change my thinking when I’m in a public building? What will I teach my children about fire survival in my house?

  1. ALWAYS know two ways out. Stairs are primary. A right out of my office, 25 feet of hallway, door on the right is stairway. Stairs are blocked? Where’s your window? Always have a backup plan.
  2. Give yourself space and time to relax and think. I’m not saying to take a nap in the meeting room, but if you can find a safe room to clear your head and think, DO IT.
  3. Hollywood is bullshit. I have physically felt fire pushing me down to the floor. Yes, an intangible thing forcing me down. Stay low, stay alive.
  4. Cover your lungs! Many times, victims are found so close to a door/window, it seems like 5 extra seconds could have saved their lives. Maybe a wet handkerchief can give you those 5 seconds.
  5. Don’t lose your group! Accountability is key, and in a crazy situation like a fire, it can be very easy to overlook/forget someone. Keep everyone together.
  6. Understand that not everyone will be as cool/calm/collected as you. If you get the sense that someone might need your help, go help them. Just know how to find them safely, so you both can make it out.

Tips for your house

  1. Come up with a plan with your spouse, a family meet-up plan. Pick out a safe place in the house to meet up, or if your children are old enough, then a tree/section in the yard.
  2. As I mentioned before, plan B is usually what ends up happening…so have one. Think about what story the bedrooms are; would windows be a realistic option? They do make roll-up fire ladders for 2/3/4 floor windows. Should something really go wrong, they might be your child’s only choice
  3. Everyone has smoke detectors, but CO detectors are less common. It’s sad when you hear of a family dying in their sleep because they didn’t know the fire was even going on in another part of the house, sending CO their way. Make sure to have both and check your batteries every six months.

Tips for your office

  1. Know your way out! You’ve worked in that damn cubicle for three years now, so you should be able to walk to your car blindfolded. However, adrenaline and panic can throw you into a flat spin and make you forget what day it is. Before making a dash for the exit, make sure you can ensure you’re going the right way.
  2. I mentioned earlier a handkerchief. Some of you may know the story of the man in a red bandana on 9/11; he was a firefighter here in Nyack and worked in one of the towers. Welles put his red handkerchief over his mouth to help him breath, and he was able to save many lives by doing so. Unfortunately, he went back in to save more when the tower fell. If you can, use a hankie, rip off a shirt sleeve, anything to absorb smoke.
  3. If you followed the prior tip, and you know that you’re going through some heavy smoke, try to pour some water on the handkerchief before biting down on it. Don’t go out of your way, however if you can use a sink/water fountain on the way out I’d advise you do so.

Tips for your children’s school

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  1. We used to do fire drills all the time at school, to be honest nobody paid attention. But maybe try to have your kids pay attention. It could help them out one day.
  2. Should anything really happen, make sure they know to just leave everything and go. You can buy a new backpack, but not a new child.
  3. Stay with your class. Everyone is going to be frantically running around, but if your child stays with their teacher they will be fine

Tips for public places

  1. If you and your spouse/children/friends are going to separate, have a meet up plan should anything go wrong. If you can meet at the car, do so. If not, agree upon a safe option.
  2. A belt is a good tool in any situation, so if you can wear one going out, do so. You can use it to tie a door closed to keep fire at bay, or as a leash for your child to follow you as previously mentioned.
  3. Always maintain situational awareness. How far have you traveled from your car? Where is the nearest exit?  Am I with everyone I came here with?

Conclusion

Although this is a rare situation, I always like to err on the side of caution. Expect the best, train for the worst. Shit like that. But in all seriousness, having a few things in the back of your mind at all times can never hurt.

Not to steal a line from “3 Ninjas,” but a good ninja is able to utilize his surroundings to defeat his enemies. You’re in your office: smoke starts billowing up the stairs from a fire in the floor below. What is in your office that you can use to escape? Can you tie together ties & belts and lead a chain of people to safety? Is the smoke so bad that you need to use a cane to find your way down a hall? Is there something heavy enough to break the window and signal for help?

Although most of these tips won’t be used, the purpose of this article is to force the reader to be more observant. Pick up on things like fire escapes, extinguishers, and evacuation plans. Look out your office window, can you make the drop if you need to? Take a walk around your house; can your children safely make it out if they need to?

William Loftus

3rd Lieutenant

Orangetown Fire Co No 1

Nyack FD Nyack, NY