You’re sound asleep when you hear the wail of your home’s smoke alarm. A fire has started somewhere in your home, smoke begins to fill the rooms, and you have only minutes — maybe seconds — to get everyone out safely.
It’s a scenario that none of us ever want to think about. But it happens with surprising regularity. The U.S. Fire Administration reports that once every minute there’s a fire in an American home that’s severe enough to report to the fire department.
An average of 2,600 people die every year in house fires in the U.S. — that’s one person every three hours — and an average of 13,000 people are injured.
Obviously, one of the most important things you can do to protect yourself is to install smoke alarms. They’re inexpensive and easy to install, and no home should be without an adequate number of them.
You should have one outside the door of each room where people sleep, and a minimum of one detector centrally located on each floor of the house. Once installed, be sure the batteries are changed once a year — pick a specific day of the year, and mark it on the calendar!
Plan your escape
Another critically important thing for you and your family is to plan an escape route. This is something for the entire family to be involved with, since it’s the best way to ensure that everyone gets out safely. Here are some tips for devising your escape plan:
Leave immediately: Your home’s contents can be replaced — you can’t. If you’re alerted to a fire in your home, get out immediately. Don’t stop to gather any belongings. Don’t even stop to call 9-1-1 — you can do that with a cell phone from outside, or from a neighbor’s house.
You can’t always depend on the door: You won’t always be able to use the room’s main door to escape during a fire, so take that into consideration when doing your escape planning. Look at two different ways to escape from any room.
If a room has two doors, practice your escape from each of them, in case one is blocked. If there’s only one door, your next means of escape will be a window, so understand how to escape from each of the room’s windows — directly onto the ground, onto an adjacent roof or deck, or with the aid of an escape ladder.
In the event of a fire, if the door to the room you’re in is closed, feel it before opening it. Use the back of your hand, and touch the top of the door or the doorknob to see if it’s hot. If it feels cool, open it slowly and check for smoke. If heat and smoke come in, close the door immediately and use an alternate exit.
Know the route: Whatever exit you use from the room, know where that exit will lead you. No matter how well you know your house, during the heat, smoke, and chaos of a fire it’s easy to become confused and disoriented — especially at night. Everyone in the family needs to know and practice the escape route from each room all the way to the exterior of the house.
Plan on a meeting spot: Decide on a specific, easily recognized meeting spot outside the house where everyone can gather. It might be the end of the driveway, in front of a neighbor’s, or some other location. Be sure that everyone in your family knows the spot, and that they immediately assemble there.
This is the fastest way to know that everyone’s out safely, and to prevent unnecessary injuries from going back into the home to look for someone who’s already out.
A window is the normal escape route to use if the door to a room is blocked by fire. But if you live in a multistory house, using the window on an upper floor is obviously dangerous without a ladder. So for every upstairs sleeping room, you should have an escape ladder ready in the event of an emergency, and each family member needs to know how to deploy and use it.
The simplest type of ladder is one that hooks over the window sill. Open the window, hook the ladder in place, toss the rungs out of the window, and climb down. Ladders of this type typically cost in the $30 to $50 range.
There’s a couple of disadvantages to this type of ladder, however. Because no one expects to use it, it gets stored away, and has to be found during the chaos of the fire. Also, many of these are single-use ladders, so there’s no opportunity to practice with them.
In my opinion, a much better alternative is a permanently installed escape ladder, such as Werner’s new Built-In Fire Escape Ladder ($99 for a two-story model, $139 for three-story). This type of ladder is installed in a can in the wall, directly under the escape window, so it’s unobtrusive but always in place when you need it.
The Warner escape ladder is very easy to install, and comes with a clear and well-illustrated instruction booklet. It’s basically a matter of cutting hole in the drywall between two studs — the can is designed for mounting between studs on 16-inch centers — and bolting the can in place. The escape ladder folds up and stores in the can, and a wood door, which can be painted or wallpapered to match the room, covers the can.
One distinct advantage to the Werner ladder, in addition to always being where you can find it, is that it’s reusable. This allows each family member the opportunity to practice opening, deploying and climbing down the ladder. The can also can be used as a step to help you get out of the window, and there’s a built-in assist strap, which gives you something to hang onto when you first start the climb.
Where to find what you need
Escape ladders, both permanent and single-use, are available at many home centers, hardware stores and online retailers such as Amazon. Smoke detectors and batteries are available from any home center, hardware store, department store and other retailers, as well as online.