One day, years ago, I came home with my 1-year-old to a house full of smoke. My cousin was with me and asked, "Is this normal? Should we call someone?" After a few disorienting seconds of trying to locate the source of the problem, I snapped to attention and called 911, then sat outside waiting for help. It turned out that a fire sparked in my neighbor's basement and it was filling both our homes with smoke.
In the end, our fire story was brief... the neighbor arrived just as the firemen were going to bust his door down, and the burning embers were put out. But as I sat in front of the house with my daughter on my lap, I felt, obviously, vulnerable. And stupid. No smoke detectors had gone off; clearly I needed to change the batteries. And though I had a fire ladder stashed in her upstairs nursery, what was my real plan for getting out with her if a fire started while we were sleeping? I had never talked it out with anyone.
The Red Cross' campaign 2Steps2Minutes encourages fire safety by making sure you and your family have a plan in advance to safely escape your home in two minutes or less. Coming up with a plan should be simple, and practicing the plan should be fast as well. A bit of advance work could make any actual incident much less dangerous, and it is just as important as having a working smoke alarm.
You can come up with a plan over dinner. Ask your spouse or oldest kid where they think the family should meet outside if you ever have to run out. A tree? Mailbox? Neighbor's porch? Pick a designated meeting spot. Then talk, in front of the kids, about the best doors (plural) to leave from. Maybe out the front door is best, but tell them that if it doesn't look safe, try the back door or garage door next. Ideally you should have two ways to escape from every room of your home. Are you the kind of mom who likes to draw things out? Print out this Red Cross worksheet to use while you discuss the best routes.
According to the Red Cross, it's important to actually practice a household fire drill to make sure you can all get out in 120 seconds flat. Hit the test on the smoke alarm so kids hear how it sounds. (Scary and awful, but there you go.) Show kids how to crawl low if there's smoke, and have them practice unlatching a door and going out. Visit the designated meeting spot, together. Remind kids that firemen may look crazy with all their gear on but that they are helpers.
Prepare for It
Remember "stop, drop, and roll" from your childhood? It's still fun to practice and important for every family member to know in case clothes accidentally catch fire. If you have a baby, they're exempt from these drills, of course, but you and your partner would be smart to discuss who is in charge of grabbing her in the event that there's a fire and you're both home.
We've got lots of household fire-prevention advice if you'd like a refresher course on how to avoid flames in the first place, but as I can tell you from experience, sometimes what sets off a spark has nothing to do with you. The important thing is to nail down what you and your family plan to do to stay safe.
Jessica Hartshorn, Entertainment Editor of Parents magazine, also once also started a house fire at her mother-in-law's by throwing a rug over a rafter that had a built-in light. But she doesn't want to revisit her stupidity, or the fact that she pleaded with the firemen to come "without the siren" out of embarrassment (as if the neighborhood would miss the giant truck and flashing lights).