So you’ve finally moved into your own place and are ready to begin life as what they call “an adult.” Paying bills, picking up after yourself, and being smart about protecting yourself and your belongings are now completely your responsibility. That means anything from preventing burglary in the most common sense ways to being prepared for a manmade or natural disaster — big or small. Over 1.2 million fires in the U.S. caused more than 3,000 deaths and 5,000 injuries and cost $11.6 billion in property damage in 2014 alone. A fire is unpredictable and dangerous, so it’s that much more important you prepare in case one breaks out on Spaghetti and Meatballs Night. Make sure all of your smoke alarms are active (yes, they drove you crazy when you burned the bacon that one time, but that’s no excuse not to put the batteries back in). Keep a small fire extinguisher in the kitchen, get renters insurance, and of course, map several escape routes from each room. Don’t know where to start? Here are six important steps to take when preparing your fire safety plan.
Before a Fire
Emergency response expert and CEO of Epicenter Media & Training Christopher Tarantino says the first step to preparing for a fire is to understand how much you’re at risk for one in your home.
“Risks can include living in a high-rise or on a higher floor of your building, living right next to a chemical engineering lab, having a window that faces a busy street, living in a natural hazard-prone area ((like tornadoes, hurricanes, etc.) — or any number of hazards that may increase the likelihood of bad stuff happening to you.”
Next, take a look around your apartment. Remember when your mom warned you to turn the stove off and not to hang things near space heaters? She wasn’t just nagging. Cooking equipment is the leading cause of household fires (making up about 45 percent of structural fires), with heating equipment following in second. So pay careful attention to these appliances, and keep them updated, clean, and free of debris, says Erik Endress, CEO of Share911.com and volunteer firefighter of 30 years.
“The best way to be prepared is to ensure that you have working smoke and fire alarm systems that will wake you up if the fire happens while you’re sleeping. If you sleep with your door closed, check to make sure that the sound of the alarm will actually wake you and your roommates up.”
So you know your risks, your appliances are updated, you practice good caution, and your smoke alarms are good to go. The next step is to make an escape plan. Living in an apartment complex means you can still be in the line of fire (no pun intended) even if the trouble starts down the hall. Endress says the simplest safety methods are the best when preparing for escape.
“Know your plan for egress. Stand in each room and ask yourself, what is the fastest way to escape in the event of a fire inside or outside of our living space? It may be that the fire escape or a balcony where you can wait for firefighters will provide a better environment than trying to evacuate down the stairs.”
Communication is also extremely important, and the best thing you and your roommate can do is plan together.
“How can we combat this risk?” Endress recommends asking each other. “Identify the tools that are at your disposal (including a emergency and/or escape plan), such as a fire extinguisher, and make sure all roommates know where it’s kept and how to use it.
“Look at and evaluate escape routes keeping in mind the path may be dark, smoke-filled or obstructed. Think about worst-case scenarios and discuss how you would respond as a team.”
Finally, make sure you have a meet-up point to find each other later in the event you get separated. After making it to safety, the next step is to check on your roommates, neighbors and anyone else who may have been in the building.
Yes, you’ve heard it often enough to hate the word, but here it is some more: Practice, practice, practice. Remember all those fire drills from school? It’s time to do some of those at home.
“There is a saying in the fire service that’s used for firefighter training, but still applies nicely here: Don’t practice until you get it right — practice until you can’t get it wrong,” says Tarantino.
During a Fire
Alright, now it’s time to put all your practice to good use. Let’s say the apartment is aflame: Before you start panicking, remember your preparation, and take a quick second to assess where the fire might be coming from. Tarantino points out that not all fires need intervention from professionals (but it’s totally okay to call 911 if you’re uncertain). If the fire is small and can be handled safely with a small extinguisher, douse the offending meal. If the blaze is any larger than a stovetop fire, leap into action.
Remember the escape plan, and scan your options quickly. The biggest risk of structural fires isn’t the fire itself, but the smoke that comes with it. And since smoke rises, it’s especially important if you’re in a high-risk area of your building (higher floors) to have your escape routes planned well in advance.
“Stairwells can act like a chimney during a fire on a floor below you, so if you get there and it’s full of smoke, knowing where the other stairwell is may be critical,” Endress says.
So find the least risky escape route, and…
When taking your escape route, it’s super important to watch for structural damage, check doorknobs with the back of your hand, and close doors behind you. The first is obvious: If you see beams falling in, the fire and the smoke will be the least of your problems in that direction. If you try a doorknob and it’s red-hot, find another route. And closing doors behind you ensures the fire has more barriers before getting through. If you’re unable to escape the building, use alternate plans involving windows like a fire escape or hook-ladder. If you’re only a floor above the ground, you might be forced to jump.
“If you have to jump, reduce the distance you will fall by hanging down from the window, which reduces your fall by your height,” advises Endress.
Whew, you made it out okay. After you’ve spoken with firefighter personnel, it’s time to meet up at your designated checkpoint. Whether it was a small kitchen fire or a blazing inferno that consumed the whole floor, it’s important everyone is accounted for in the aftermath. In the middle of a disaster, it’s not unlikely people will forget their phones and other electronics, which is why an official meeting place is that much more important to include in your fire safety plan.
“The first question the fire department will likely ask is whether or not everyone is out of the building, so make sure you keep good communication with your roommates and you understand how emergency response works in your area or university,” says Tarantino.