Monday, October 23, 2017

Escaping a Burning Building

(Source)
       Burning to death from a building fire is actually pretty rare in the United States. One of the sources I consulted for this article indicated that there were only 12 deaths per million per year; mostly a product of better fire and electrical codes, fewer smokers, and removing ingredients from cigarettes that kept cigarettes burning even if discarded or dropped. Nevertheless, another source indicated that fires kill more people every year than all other natural disasters combined.

       This certainly seems borne out, as we have seen from recent news articles concerning the fires in the Napa Valley of California, the Grenfell Tower earlier this year in London, and countless local stories of house or other structure fires. Keep in mind, as well, that using flammable light sources--candles, gas or propane lanterns and oil lamps--will greatly increase the risk of a fire--something to watch out for in the event of loss of electrical power.

       How you should respond to a fire actually depends significantly on the type and age of the building. Most residential buildings in the United States, whether single family residences, single story condominiums, or "low rise" apartments or hotels of one or two stories, are of wood frame construction and make use of wood flooring and joists. (Although one of my sources derided the United States for using wood framing in construction, it is superior to masonry construction in the event of an earthquake). Siding is often of wood or other flammable materials. Even if a building is "brick" or "stucco," it is generally just a fascia over a wood framed building.  And, of course, there are the contents: carpet, cabinets and furniture, and personal items (papers, books, etc.). In more modern multi-residential buildings, walls extend up into the attic to prevent fire from spreading through the attic from one residence to another; but many older structures lack this feature.

       Buildings constructed of brick or stone (i.e., masonry or "mass" construction) are not immune to fire, either. Often, even if the exterior walls (or even interior load bearings walls) may be built using masonry, joists, flooring, and plastered walls may all be made of wood ... in addition to the contents as described above. And, in the area where I reside, I've noted that some apartment buildings and hotels will use reinforced concrete for a ground floor, such as a parking garage or for retail space, then use wood framing for the additional 3 or 4 stories above that in which the individual apartments or hotel rooms are located.

       Modern high-rise structures, using steel framing and concrete floors, are generally the safest buildings in event of fires. Not just because of the materials used, but because of the use of sprinkler systems, fire doors and barriers, and broad emergency stairwells. But, again, individual buildings may vary. For instance, Grenfell Tower--a seemingly modern high rise apartment building--had been refurbished with an the exterior cladding system to better insulate the building. This cladding material, an aluminum/polyethylene sandwich material manufactured in China, was so flammable that "testing in Australia was suspended after the first sample practically blew up in the lab."  Moreover, fire codes can vary extensively. For instance, again in reference to the Grenfell Tower disaster, during the 1970s (when the Tower was constructed), British building code apparently only required one escape stair which is not designed for a mass evacuation, but was intended for a small number of people to evacuate individual apartments that were on fire. You can be certain that fire codes are inferior, or not observed, in many other countries.

Single-Family Residences:

       I think that I can still safely say that a majority of Americans live in a detached, single family residence--a house. In most of these residences, the only fire resistant doors will be exterior doors and the door between the main portion of the house and an attached garage. Generally, fire codes require each bedroom to have a window large enough to escape a fire, but this may not be true of older structures. Keep in mind that the majority of residential fire fatalities occur at night when people are asleep.

       Experts recommend having and implementing a fire plan. That is:
  • Make sure you have a working smoke detector for each floor of your residence located near each sleeping area; and if your home is split into different sections (e.g., children's rooms on one side of your home and the master bedroom or suite on the other), to have smoke detectors for each section. If you can, locate the detectors near the bedrooms or, better yet, have "full coverage" and include smoke detectors in each bedroom and living area. Most current fire codes in the United States require the "full coverage" in newly constructed or remodeled homes. 
  • Augment your smoke detectors with CO (carbine monoxide) detectors: especially if you use a wood burning stove or fireplace for heating, or use a gas powered water heater or furnace. 
  • Develop an evacuation plan in the event of fire, including at least two exits from each bedroom and living space. For instance, a primary exit might be through a front door, and an alternative exit might be through a window or rear door/patio door. It should also include a meeting or gathering area far enough from the house to be safe, but easily accessible by everyone, such as the front sidewalk, a neighbors driveway, etc. Make sure everyone knows what to do in the event of a fire. 
  • Keep a fire extinguisher handy in any areas where there are open flames or heat, such as a kitchen or workshop. However, don't mount a fire extinguisher near the most likely source of heat or flame. For instance, you don't want to have a kitchen fire extinguisher near a stove top because, in the event of a stove top fire, you might not be able to get to the fire extinguisher because of the flames.
  • Periodically check your smoke detector(s) and fire extinguisher(s), and practice your evacuation plan. Smoke detectors should be tested once per month, and batteries should be replaced yearly; the detectors, themselves, should be replaced every 5 to 10 years (after 10 years, the failure rate is 30 to 50 %). Fire extinguishers generally have either a pressure gauge, indicating whether their pressure is still sufficient, or a push button to test pressure.
  • Keep copies of important documents in a fire proof box or safe. If you don't have one, wrap and seal the copies in plastic and store them in a freezer or the freezing compartment on your refrigerator. 
  • Check to make sure you live within a fire district or other jurisdiction that offers fire protection. Keep the number for the fire department or emergency services posted near a phone or other handy location, and make sure everyone knows what number to call.
  • If you have bars over your windows, make sure that they are the type that have an emergency release to facilitate evacuation in the event of a fire.
  • Make sure everyone knows and is able to demonstrate that they can unlock and open doors and windows and, if applicable, the emergency latches for any barred windows. 
  • Make sure that children know how to evacuate without parental assistance and teach them to not wait for parents to assist them if they are able to evacuate on their own.
  • If you have a house with bedrooms on an upper floor, you might consider whether to get one or more escape ladders. You can find these for sale through Amazon or Walmart, or home improvement stores such as Lowe's or Home Depot.
       Safety Tips:

       While this all may seem common sense, common safety tips for avoiding fire are:
  • Don't smoke in bed or when lying down to sleep. 
  • If you do smoke, purchase and use ash trays with a central support feature.
  • Don't leave candles, space heaters, or other sources of flame or heat unattended. 
  • If you do have to use candles, oil lamps, or such, make sure they are kept away from flammable materials (e.g. curtains or loose fabric) and placed somewhere steady and toward the center of a table (not the edge) so they don't fall off. Also, keep them away from areas where it is likely that someone might strike them or knock them over.
  • Store matches and lighters out of the reach of children.
  • Sources also recommend sleeping with bedrooms doors shut to prevent the spread of a fire or smoke. The only issues I have with this is that it really messes with air circulation needed for proper heating or cooling of the house, and may not be feasible where you need to be able to hear an infant, or fussy or sick children.

       What To Do In The Event Of A Fire
  • In the event of a fire, the basic step is to evacuate the structure. As noted above, make sure everyone knows at least two different routes to evacuate from whatever room they might be in. Children, handicapped individuals, or elderly individuals may need assistance waking up, or getting out of the structure. (Several sources have indicated that children are likely to sleep through a fire alarm; note also if someone in your household takes sleeping medications, they may also need to woken up). When you get to the agreed upon rendezvous location, check to see that everyone is there.
  • Call 911 or the appropriate emergency number for your locale. 
  • Before opening any closed doors, check the door handle for temperature. If the door handle is hot, don't open the door! The fire is likely outside the door and you will need to use an alternative exit.
  • Fires generate a lot of smoke and dangerous fumes. I have heard of and read cases of people being overcome by dangerous fumes and loosing consciousness, sometimes before they were aware of any dangers. For instance, the author of this article related a story from her early days as a volunteer fire fighter responding to a garbage dump fire, and twice passed out due to the fumes. The basic tactic, as you probably all remember from grade school, is to get down on your hands and knees so your head is below the level of the smoke or fumes, and crawl out. If necessary, you can wet a cloth and hold it over your nose. In such case, remember to breath in and out through your nose; tucking a bit of the cloth into your mouth and clamping onto it with your teeth will remind you to breath through your nose.
  • In cold weather, you may want to consider grabbing blankets off your beds as you evacuate in order to protect you and your family from exposure while outside.
  • If you have to escape through a window, throw a mattress out first to cushion your fall or protect you from injury from objects/plants below the window. 
  • Even if you have to climb out the window of the upper story of a house, you will probably be close enough to the ground to jump--people can survive jumps from two or three stories. Keep your legs together, and bend the knees and roll on impact to lessen the force of the fall.
Apartments and Hotels:

        I think I can confidently say that the vast majority of hotels and apartment buildings in the United States are two to four stories in height. A typical modern apartment building seems to be three stories, with external stairs (i.e., open to the weather) servicing only a small number of apartments for each floor of each building of the apartment complex. Some apartment buildings or hotels may have an exposed walkway servicing all apartments or hotel rooms on a given floor, with only a limited number of stairways down to the ground. Other apartment buildings or hotels may have only a limited number of internal stairways and hallways. And, of course, we are all familiar, from television, of the old tenements and hotels with the external iron or steel fire escapes.

Preparations 
  • As with a detached dwelling, it is key to have a fire escape plan. Know where the nearest stairwells, fire escapes, or other exits are located. Super high rise buildings may have "refuge floors" (generally one for every 20 stories) for people to gather in the event of evacuation or other emergency--know where they are. 
  • Make sure your apartment, hotel room, etc., has operating smoke detectors. As noted above, check your smoke detectors once per month, change batteries at least once per year, and replace the smoke detectors every 5 years.
  • Make sure your apartment, hotel room, etc., main door is fire rated and has not been compromised by modifications.
  • Keep emergency doors (exits or to emergency stairwells) closed, and keep such doorways, stairwells, or fire escapes clear from clutter or debris.
  • Know where fire fighting equipment, such as fire extinguishers or fire hoses, are located and how to use them. Consider getting a fire extinguisher for your apartment.
  • Keep copies of important documents in a fire proof box or safe. If you don't have one, wrap and seal the copies in plastic and store them in a freezer or the freezing compartment on your refrigerator.
  • If you have bars over your windows, make sure that they are the type that have an emergency release to facilitate evacuation in the event of a fire.
  • Make sure everyone knows and is able to demonstrate that they can unlock and open doors and windows and, if applicable, the emergency latches for any barred windows.
  • Make sure that children know how to evacuate the building.
  • If above the ground floor, look at purchasing an escape ladder in the event you have to evacuate through a window. 

       What To Do In The Event Of A Fire
  • If the fire starts in your location (office, hotel room, or apartment) or you detect smoke, don't go looking for the fire; alert everyone in the location and exit the location, closing doors behind you, and trigger the fire alarm if it has not already been activated. Avoid using emergency stairwells that are filled with smoke or fumes. Obviously, you may be able to extinguish small fires with a fire extinguisher or smothering it, but don't play the hero if the fire spreads.
  • Do not use elevators. Elevators function can be affected by heat or fire, they are generally not rated to protect you from fire or smoke, and certain elevators may be reserved for use by firefighters. 
  • Once you get to a safe location, call 911 or the appropriate emergency number for your location.
  • Your primary escape route if you are on a floor above the ground floor will be through the main door to your apartment or hotel room. As above, check the door handle before attempting to open the door; if it is hot, don't open the door--use an alternative route if available.
  • Again, if there is smoke or fumes, get down on your hands and knees to keep below the smoke and fumes. If necessary, use a wet cloth to breath through (see my comments above).
  • If you can't get out through the door, keep the door shut and pack wet cloth or clothing (towels work great) under or around the door to keep the smoke out. If there are interior doors between you and where the fire is located, close (but don't lock) them to help keep out the fire and smoke.
  • If you are only a few stories above the ground, you might consider improvising a rope or jumping to the ground. As noted earlier, first throw out a mattress to help with breaking your fall. Tie some cloth (such as towels) around your head as an improvised helmet. If you jump or fall, keep your legs together, and bend the knees and roll when you impact the ground. If you have to improvise a rope, rip sheets or other cloth into 18-inch wide strips and then twist and tie them together. Wetting the cloth will give it more "bite" so the knots don't come undone. Use a reef knot (aka square knot) to tie the sheets together so the knots won't come undone--a "granny knot" or bow knot will not work. Don't use towels or terry cloth as the fabric is generally not strong enough to support the weight of a person. Tie the end of the rope to something solid, such as pipe work, and then dangle out the window. Only one person should go down at a time.
  • If you are not able to improvise a rope, or it is too high, hang a towel or sheet out your window to mark your location for firefighters. Sit or lay on the floor (low enough that you won't be affected by smoke or fumes) and wait for help. Don't try waiting a fire out by sitting in a filled bathtub--you can literally cook to death.

High Rise and Super High Rise Buildings

       For purposes of this article, "high rise" is anything more than 7 stories high. Even the longest ladder trucks can't reach above seven stories, nor can fire trucks pump water to spray any higher. Super high rise buildings are generally considered to be buildings 40 or more stories in height. With both high rise and super high rise buildings, it is the design of the building that will generally keep you safe--you are too high to jump or climb down an improvised sheet. Design features include fire doors, concrete floors, emergency stairwells or fire escapes, and--at least after 1980--sprinkler systems.

   

Smoke travel with no fire doors, but a vent at the top of the emergency stairwell (Source)

Smoke travel with no fire doors and no roof vent (Source)

Smoke travel where there are fire doors (source)
Preparations 
  • As with other buildings, it is key to have a fire escape plan. Know where the nearest stairwells, fire escapes, or other exits are located. Super high rise buildings may have "refuge floors" (generally one for every 20 stories) for people to gather in the event of evacuation or other emergency--know where they are. 
  • Make sure your apartment, hotel room, etc., has operating smoke detectors. As noted above, check your smoke detectors once per month, change batteries at least once per year, and replace the smoke detectors every 5 years.
  • Make sure your apartment, hotel room, etc., main door is fire rated and has not been compromised by modifications.
  • Keep emergency doors (exits or to emergency stairwells) closed, and keep such doorways, stairwells, or fire escapes clear from clutter or debris.
  • Know where fire fighting equipment, such as fire extinguishers or fire hoses, are located and how to use them. Consider getting a fire extinguisher for your apartment. 
  • Keep copies of important documents in a fire proof box or safe. If you don't have one, wrap and seal the copies in plastic and store them in a freezer or the freezing compartment on your refrigerator.
  • If you have bars over your windows, make sure that they are the type that have an emergency release to facilitate evacuation in the event of a fire.
  • Make sure everyone knows and is able to demonstrate that they can unlock and open doors and windows.
  • Make sure that children know how to evacuate the building.

     What To Do In The Event Of A Fire
  • In most cases, if a fire alarm goes off for your building, and there is no fire or smoke in your apartment, office, hotel room, etc., most sources indicate that it is safest to shelter in place due to design features that will prevent smoke or fire from spreading through the building. If there is no fire in your location, you can open a window if necessary for fresh air.
  • If the fire starts in your location (office, hotel room, or apartment) or you detect smoke, evacuate your location (office, apartment, hotel room). Don't go looking for the fire. Instead,  alert everyone in the location (note my comments above in the section on house fires and the need to alert and assist children and/or the elderly) and exit the location, closing doors behind you. Go to the "refuge floor" below your floor, if your building has any, or exit the building. Trigger the fire alarm if it has not already been activated. Once you get to a safe location, call 911 or the appropriate emergency number for your location.
  • Do not use elevators. Elevators function can be affected by heat or fire, they are generally not rated to protect you from fire or smoke, and certain elevators may be reserved for use by firefighters.
  • Your primary escape route will be through the main door to your apartment or hotel room. As above, check the door handle before attempting to open the door; if it is hot, don't open the door--use an alternative route if available. Avoid using emergency stairwells that are filled with smoke or fumes.
  • Again, if there is smoke or fumes, get down on your hands and knees to keep below the smoke and fumes. If necessary, use a wet cloth to breath through (see my comments above).
  • If you can't get out through the door, keep the door shut and pack wet cloth or clothing (towels work great) under or around the door to keep the smoke out. If there are interior doors between you and where the fire is located, close (but don't lock) them to help keep out the fire and smoke.
  • If you are only a few stories above the ground, you might consider improvising a rope or jumping to the ground. As noted earlier, first throw out a mattress to help with breaking your fall. Tie some cloth (such as towels) around your head as an improvised helmet. If you jump or fall, keep your legs together, and bend the knees and roll when you impact the ground. If you have to improvise a rope, rip sheets or other cloth into 18-inch wide strips and then twist and tie them together. Wetting the cloth will give it more "bite" so the knots don't come undone. Use a reef knot (aka square knot) to tie the sheets together so the knots won't come undone--a "granny knot" or bow knot will not work. Don't use towels or terry cloth as the fabric is generally not strong enough to support the weight of a person. Tie the end of the rope to something solid, such as pipe work, and then dangle out the window. Only one person should go down at a time. Don't try jumping if you are above the third story.
  • If you are not able to improvise a rope, or it is too high, hang a towel or sheet out your window to mark your location for firefighters. Sit or lay on the floor (low enough that you won't be affected by smoke or fumes) and wait for help. Don't try waiting a fire out by sitting in a filled bathtub--you can literally cook to death.

Sources:

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