How to Escape a Fire in a High-Rise Building
Don't get trapped in a tower of trouble
On a snowy afternoon in November, a blaze caused by a candle broke out in a condo on the 50th floor of Chicago’s John Hancock Center skyscraper. Flames shot out a window, and black smoke billowed into the sky.
“The smoke was terrible,” Jessica Mays, who escaped by walking down many flights of stairs with her scarf covering her face, told NBC Chicago.
The fire, which sent five people to the hospital, was one of about 15,000 high-rise fires that occur each year, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
A fire in a high rise poses a unique threat because of this basic fact: You’re much further from safety, says Ken Willette, public fire protection manager for the NFPA. The good news? High-rise buildings are more likely to have features such as fire alarms and full sprinkler systems to help keep you safe.
Related: How to Survive a Fire
Fire safety know-how helps, too. If you live or work in a tall building, here are four tips that could help keep you alive.
1. Make a fire safety plan. Just like residents of single-family homes or low-rise apartment buildings, high-rise dwellers should have a home fire safety plan, Willette says. Meet with neighbors on your floor to coordinate how you would evacuate and help each other, Willette says. Know where the exits are, and mark them on your plan, the NFPA recommends.
2. Meet with management. Ask your building manager or landlord to hold a fire safety meeting to inform residents about the building’s fire safety features and evacuation procedures, the NFPA recommends. For example, find out if an automatic system will dial 911, or if you need to make a call, Willette says. If the building doesn’t have a full fire sprinkler system, ask your landlord to consider adding this life-saving safety feature. And always participate in fire drills to practice for a real fire.
Related: Are You Prepared for a House Fire?
3. Establish a place of refuge. Each building should have a designated place of refuge, a spot where occupants who are unable to reach safety on their own can wait for rescuers, Willette says. These spaces may be located as stand-alone compartments on a floor, or they might be oversized landings in stairwells, according to the NFPA. Scope out this space ahead of time in case you need to find it during a fire, Willette says.
4. Know how to escape a high-rise fire. A fire in a high-rise building is a little different from one in a single-family home. Here’s what to do if a blaze breaks out:
- Heed the alarm. If a fire alarm sounds in your building, don’t assume it’s a false alarm or that you can wait to see what happens. “Treat it as a real emergency,” Willette says.
- See if it’s safe to evacuate. If you’re behind a closed door in your apartment, condo or workplace, check for heat, Willette says. If the door and door handle are cool, open the door slowly. If smoke pushes in, close the door and stay in your apartment. Call 911 to let rescuers know where you are, and put a brightly colored towel or sheet in the window as a signal to firefighters, he says. While you wait, seal vents and cracks under doors with duct tape or towels and open (but don’t break) windows if you can.
- Take the stairs. If there’s no smoke, or there's light smoke you can crawl underneath, go to the stairwell to exit, Willette says. Never use the elevator in a fire. Elevators can malfunction and trap people between floors — or take the car right to the floor of the fire, Willette says. At that point, he says, “There’s no escape.”
- Head to a refuge place. If you are disabled, elderly, sick or otherwise unable to evacuate, go to the designated place of refuge and wait for help from firefighters. If that’s not possible, stay in your apartment and call 911 to report your location right away, Willette says.
- Avoid the balcony. Unless your apartment is filled with smoke and you have no other option, don’t go out on your balcony. You could get stuck there, Willette says. “If you’re on the 50th floor and you go on the balcony, you’re pretty much committed to stay there until the fire is extinguished or someone can come get you,” he says. Also, you could be exposed to smoke from lower floors, he says.
Finally, don’t go to the roof thinking a helicopter will swoop down to rescue you. The movies make it look easy, but rooftop rescues are difficult and rare. “Very few cities have the ability to do rooftop rescues,” Willette says.
Related: 6 Things Not to Do in an Emergency
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