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The Bottom Line on Urban Fire Safety

Fire Extinguisher

We researched advice from fire departments, emergency agencies, and independent commentators all over the continent to come up with the most up-to-date views on urban fire safety. We have three conclusions:

1. The old ways are still best. In the many years we've been "drilled" in offices and schools, the edict has always been to stay where you are unless a fire was actually threatening your safety. First, a comforting fact: Urban fire departments are remarkably fast in getting to the scene of the action. In Houston and NYC, for example, typical response time is a shade over 4 minutes -- plenty of time to get you help if you need it.

There are compelling reasons behind the principle of staying put: Fire safety experts have long held that people in high-rises just don't understand how dangerous smoke is. Not that there aren't times when you should evacuate, but it seems that the advice given by your local fire department and the presentations the kids get in school are probably right on.

2. Emergency planning needs more than lip service from you, your kids, and your caregiver. In New York City, new laws included a provision to increase fire safety awareness. Building managers were required to prepare and distribute a fire safety plan to all building residents, including posting it in an accessible area as well as on the inside of every apartment door. 

Did it work? Hardly. Apartment dwellers all over town were up in arms because they felt the posting made their homes look like hotel rooms. And we'd bet a thousand bucks that most folks didn't even read the plans.

Do you think you'll have more presence of mind than they did? Don't kid yourself. You need to be serious about this stuff. Have a fire safety plan, read it, and go over it with your loved ones again and again.

3. There are numerous things that can be done on a building-wide basis to facilitate fire safety and, indeed, are applicable in other emergencies as well -- terrorist attacks, power outages, you name it. If your building is behind the eight ball, why not get involved? All too often, emergency preparation and prevention actions mandated by local laws are just ignored or, as discussed, are less than adequate. Don't let your building be the next cause celebre.

Especially if you're in a building that is older or without sprinklers, you need to get with the program. If you take all of this stuff as seriously as we do, you'll take the time to understand what each of these points requires from you.

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.

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.