The Bottom Line on Urban Fire Safety

The Alarm Sounds: Stay or Go?

Tragic errors are made by people who react the wrong way when a fire alarm goes off. Say it's 2 a.m. and you're awakened by a cacophony of sirens. Do you know what to do?

The basic principle is to stay where you are unless you're actually being threatened by the fire, because far more people are killed by smoke inhalation than by fire itself. That said, the longer you wait to leave, the more risk there is that smoke and fire will have spread, cutting off your exits. If you're in charge, you will have to make the judgment of whether to stay or go -- and if you're not there, you need to make sure your caregiver or your kids understand what you want them to do and when and how.

When to Go and What to Do

When the fire is in your apartment: Get everyone out. Make sure they know how to crawl if there's smoke: Keep low and cover your mouth with a damp towel or washcloth. Shut (but don't lock) all windows and doors as you leave. Call 911. Don't try to put it out unless you have a way out, and if it is spreading quickly, give up and get out.

When the fire is on your floor or the floor below you: Evacuate immediately if you can do it safely without traveling through smoke.

If you think the fire has just been discovered or you just heard the alarm and think you can exit safely: Check the door to the hallway with the back of your hand -- you don't want to take the chance of burning your palm or fingers on a hot door; that could make a crawling escape all the more difficult. If it's cool, open it slowly to check for smoke. If there's no smoke, proceed to the exit and follow the same process to check the exit stairs.

If you are in a combustible or non-fireproof building (generally one with structural components made of wood): Fires in such buildings can spread rapidly inside the walls, so you are much less likely to be safe inside the building in the event a fire occurs in someone else's unit. You should make your way out unless smoke, heat, or fire prevent your leaving.

Any time you leave:

  • grab your fire emergency kit in case you have to abort your exit somewhere along the way;
  • shut all windows and doors as you leave, including entry doors and fire exit doors; and
  • alert anyone you can on the way out.

When to Stay and What to Do

When the fire does not appear to be near your apartment: Like we said, this is the base case and generally will be the behavior you will adopt should you see those engines pulling up outside your building.

When the fire department instructs you to stay: They know more about fires than you do, so you're just going to have to trust their judgment that you are safest (and less of an impediment) where you are.

When there's smoke in the hall or exit stairs: Do not travel through smoke if you encounter it. Take refuge in your apartment or another one if possible.

If you're staying put and feel you're in any kind of danger:

  • While you're waiting, seal doors, vents, and air ducts with duct tape and wet towels. Fill a bath tub; you may need to wet down overheating doors.
  • Move to a balcony or the least smoky room and seal the door. Open a window for fresh air if you need it. (Don't break it, though; if smoke starts pouring in, you won't be able to seal it up again.)
  • Let the fire department know where you are if you feel threatened: (1) call 911 on your cell phone, (2) communicate through your intercom, and/or (3) hang a sheet or towel outside your window or from your balcony.
  • If smoke becomes a factor, stay low, hold that towel or cloth over your mouth and nose, take short breaths through your nose, and get instructions through your intercom or cell phone on what to do.

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