How to Survive a Fire
You have two minutes at most to escape a burning building. Don't waste a second — learn these 6 steps now
You’re at home, at work or at a hotel when a fire breaks out. Knowing what to do — and what not to do — in the next few minutes can save your life.
“The number one mistake people make is not evacuating quickly enough,” says Ken Willette, a former fire chief who's now the public fire protection manager for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
Here are six steps to learn now so that you (and your loved ones) can make a quick exit and increase your chances of surviving a fire.
Take fire alarms seriously
It’s a common error, especially in offices and industrial buildings, to assume a fire alarm is a false alarm, Willette says. If employees at the NFPA headquarters had make this mistake several months ago, he adds, the results could have been disastrous. When the fire alarm sounded, they all followed the building evacuation plan, even though they didn’t smell smoke or see flames. Sure enough, as soon as they were in the hallway, the employees smelled smoke. (A copy machine on a lower level of the building had caught fire.)
When a fire alarm goes off, do not hesitate to get up and go. If others stay put, encourage them to evacuate as well, advises Willette. Say, “I’m leaving. Are you coming with me?”
After a fire alarm sounds, you have one to two minutes at most to get out of a building safely, says Susan McKelvey, communications manager for the NFPA. This is especially true of newer buildings, which often are made of lightweight materials that burn fast and give off lots of toxic smoke.
Don’t take time to grab anything before you get out — no mementos, important papers, not even your laptop. “You have a small window of time to get out,” McKelvey says again. “Your safety is the priority."
One exception: If — and only if — you have a flashlight at hand that you can snatch up as you leave, bring that. It can be hard to see in a smoke-filled hallway or stairwell.
Pick an exit
Your fire escape plan should include at least two ways out of any room. One can be the exit you’d normally use — typically a door — and the other can be a window, McKelvey says. That way, if you’re in, say, a bedroom with the door shut you can test it (or the door knob) for heat with the back of your hand before cracking it open to look out. If it’s not safe to get out that way, you have a second option already in place.
If there's no safe way out of a room, close the door. If you can, get a towel or similar item wet (soak it with your water bottle, for example) and use it to plug the crack between the bottom of the door frame and the floor, advises the American Red Cross.
Know when to crawl
If you can walk upright to reach your exit without passing through smoke, do it — quickly, advises Willette. But if there’s smoke along the way out, drop to your hands and knees and crawl to keep your head below it. To descend a smoke-filled stairwell, crawl down backwards, Willette recommends. You’ll be less likely to lose your balance.
Don't go it alone
As you move toward the exit, bang on bedroom or office doors as you pass them to let family members or co-workers know what’s happening, advises Willette. Call out a warning like this: “Fire alarm sounding! Everyone out! Meet in front of the house!” Parents with infants or toddlers will have to physically pick up and carry their children out, so decide ahead of time who will grab child A and who will grab child B in the event of a fire.
Use window exits safely
But don’t jump out. If you can get to the ground easily — or to a fire escape with a ladder — climb out through a window, Willette says. If you can get onto the roof or a nearby sturdy tree safely, do that. As soon as you’re out of the house or building, call 911.
If you can’t get out safely, open the window and stick your head out. If you have a phone, dial 911 and then begin yelling loudly or waving a brightly colored piece of clothing so the firefighters will be able to see you when they arrive, advises the American Red Cross. Adds Willette, “Don’t leave until you physically can’t stay because the smoke, heat or flames are too close.”