I used to think the fire drills our teachers made us do in school were silly. The alarms would go off and we'd make our way out to the quad and spend the next 30 or 40 minutes hanging out as everyone got organized.
Looking back, it was a hot mess. Once I started getting interested in survival, I discovered that one of the most common emergencies a family has to deal with is fire.
Cooking mishaps. Faulty electronics. Or even if you've not caused a fire yourself, a downstairs apartment or some miscreant neighborhood kids have sparked a blaze and now your family is at risk. You don't have 30 or 40 minutes to escape. In many cases you've got minutes. Would you know what to do? My family sure didn’t.
Once we started documenting our SHTF strategies, I realized there was much we needed to improve when it comes to fire safety. Here's what we did.
Get your home in order
The first step in making your home fire-ready is to create a first line of defense. Install smoke alarms in key areas of your home, like the living and kitchen areas, and any hallways near bedrooms, and keep fire extinguishers handy. We've got one tucked underneath the sink in the kitchen, and another in the garage. Then it comes down to your escape. From each room in your home there should be a clear exit point, which can pose a difficulty if your bedrooms are on the second floor. I didn't want to build a lattice that could be used by an intruder to gain access, so we purchased a sturdy rope ladder we keep in our kids closet that can be quickly used in an emergency to evacuate. Then it's just a matter of having a go-bag handy with a flashlight, a means of self defense, and a little cash for paying a few nights at a local hotel.
If a fire actually breaks out
The first step is to decide if you're able to fight the fire. If it's something small, like a pan's ignited in your kitchen while you're cooking, you may be able to use the right fire extinguisher to put it out. A wet blanket can be a good alternative if the fire is a little bigger, just be wary of putting any water on an electrical or oil-burning fire. It'll cause more harm than good. You may want to invest in a fire blanket if you see a risk here, they're compact and an awesome tool to smother a fire.
But perhaps the fire is bigger than you can handle. Or you're woken in the middle of the night to the sound of a fire alarm going berserk. What now?
I'd start by waking your family up and alerting them to the situation. Get your wife out of bed, and make your way to the kids rooms. But before you open any doors, do a little test. Hold the back of your hand up to the door and feel for heat. If there's flames on the other side it'll be radiating heat. If it's still cool, you can risk opening the door, but do it slowly. The fire could still be outside waiting for a fresh burst of oxygen to flare up again.
Get your kids up and start making your way to the primary escape point in your evacuation plans. Ours is our kids room. Once inside, we need to block any smoke from entering. I'd grab the sheets off their beds and stuff these into the crack underneath the door. Smoke inhalation can be deadly, and it's going to take time to get our two kids down the rope ladder, so buying time is a good idea. Oh, and a piece of wet cloth to breathe through will help filter out any smoke from the air. Fires also struggle getting past closed doors, so if you've got any that you can close as you evacuate make sure to shut these too.
If you're stuck in part of the house and need to get through a smoky area, drop to your knees and crawl. Smoke rises and will collect near the ceiling, so the lower you can go the thinner the smoke will be. And you'll breathe easier. Stay as low as you can and crawl your way out. If sparks hit you and your clothing catches fire don't panic. The best thing you can do is stop, drop and roll. You're essentially "patting" the fire out as you roll, smothering the flames so it stops burning. This is the most effective way to put yourself out. Running is only going to feed more oxygen into the flames so you' burn quicker, even if you've only got a short sprint to the swimming pool it's best to stop, drop and roll.
Finally, I just want to mention speed. A fire in your home will quickly spread, and in what feels like only a few moments it can consume everything. What's most important is to get your family out and to safety. Leave your possessions and valuables. It's not worth your life trying to get these out when the difference of minutes could be all that separates you from life or death. And in any case, anything that important should be stored in a fire-proof container, in a safe. So get out as fast as you can. Once you're outside alert the authorities, and if there's any danger to neighboring homes it could be worth waking them up too.
Surviving a house fire is a traumatic experience. Everything you know, everything you owned, is now burnt to a crisp. What you need to tell yourself is that what's most important is that you're safe and sound. And so is your family. Your quick thinking has helped to save everyone, and no matter what, you can rebuild. So long as you're alive.