The Bottom Line on Urban Fire Safety

Making a Family Plan, Building To-Dos

Making a Family Plan

We know that fire safety is not exactly front and center in most apartment dwellers' lists of daily concerns. After all, most of you have been listening to fire safety speeches since you were 2; surely you've got this stuff down by now. 

But when push comes to shove, would you really remember how important closing doors is? Do you ever practice drills at home? Have you ever discussed your plan with your caregiver? Good for you if you say yes; for the rest of us, time to get moving. No excuses. Develop your emergency plan and go over it with your kids.

Then practice the evacuation, the whole evacuation, doing just what you would if there really was a fire, including making family members crawl out of their bedrooms through all the possible apartment exits to the exit stairway(s) (count the doors from your apartment, if necessary). Don't stop short. Go all the way out of the building to the designated meeting place. Don't forget to close doors and windows. In fact, practice at night when the kids are sleeping, and see if they wake up (studies suggest that kids sleep right through smoke alarms). No cheating; you really need to practice for your sake and theirs. And do it again with the caregiver.

What Your Building Can Do

Our final point concerns building preparedness. Again this may evoke yawns, but there have been way too many tragedies because of improperly locked stairwells and blocked exit ways. So start with your building manager. Ask him what the building fire emergency plan is.

In many cities, the manager is required to prepare a plan and have it approved by the fire department. If one hasn't been done yet, check with the board, tenants' association, or your local fire department to get help on getting a plan done properly.

Look to see that the building has basic fire safety elements in place, such as:

  • Clearly marked and unlocked exit doors (the doors to the roof in the Twin Towers were locked, preventing possible helicopter rescue for evacuees headed for the roof).
  • Cleared corridors and stairways -- you'll never notice how clogged your back hall is with bikes or strollers or boxes until you need to negotiate it in an emergency.
  • Automatic closers on apartment doors and fire stair doors.
  • Functioning, effective emergency lighting (in a high-rise, check for a backup emergency lighting system if the electricity goes out; you may have a lot of flights to go down in the dark, and that's a real chore).
  • Posted emergency instructions and an emergency communication system. If there's an intercom system, how will it be used? If not, how about communication by phone?

If your building is missing any of this stuff, round up some neighbors and fix what needs fixing. Better yet, try and mobilize for a building-wide drill. It can't hurt anyone, will help you get to know your neighbors, and may even build a little neighborly solidarity.

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.

Excerpted from The City Parent Handbook: The Complete Guide to the Ups and Downs and Ins and Outs of Raising Young Kids in the City (Rodale, 2004) by Kathy Bishop and Julia Whitehead. Both women live, and parent, in New York City.

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