We all sat glued to the screen, watching that fateful episode of This is Us. We bawled our eyes out, took a breath, then immediately checked the batteries in our smoke detectors. Though fictional, it was a visceral reminder of the very real damage that a house fire can do, and how unprepared we might be if it happened to us.
Checking smoke detector batteries is a good start, but there is more to being fire-ready; it is every bit as important to make sure your children know what to do.
Make sure there are smoke detectors and CO2 detectors on every level of the house
This one seems obvious, but it is frequently missed. The eggs you burned last week set it off, so you take it down and haven’t gotten around to putting it back up. You have one on the main level, but not the others. They are up but the batteries haven’t been replaced in a while, or the detector itself is expired. There are lots of reasons it happens, but lack of working detectors is a huge hazard.
At our house, we have detectors in every bedroom as well as on every floor, but at least one outside the bedroom area and addition to the ones on the other floors is vital. Replace the batteries twice a year, consistently. Doing it when you change your clocks for daylight savings is a good way to remember. Make note of when the detector expires and test them occasionally.
Keep bedroom doors closed at night time
Closing bedroom doors helps slow the spread of the fire and gives you extra time to be rescued if you are trapped.
Have an escape plan and practice it
Ideally, have two ways out if possible. In a crisis, reasoning will be more difficult. Having a plan ahead of time, and practising it until it becomes second nature, reduces chances of panicking over not knowing what to do.
Choose a family meeting place outside the house
Make it easily accessible, a safe distance from the house, and make sure everyone knows it. Unlike the escape plan where more is better, this should be one place that does not change, so that all family members can be accounted for quickly. It should be something permanent, like a tree or the steps of a specific house other than your own. When changing locations, choose another meeting spot and make another escape plan. Grandma and Grandpa’s should have their own plan and meeting place, etc.
Crawl under the smoke
The urge in a fire is to move as quickly as possible, but smoke rises, so running will incapacitate you quickly. Crawling on the floor will give you more air. Instill this into your kids and remind them. I gave my kids the rhyme “If you don’t want to choke, crawl low under the smoke” which we practice regularly.
If your clothes catch fire, “Stop, Drop, and Roll”
Lay on the ground, cover your face with your hands, and roll back and forth to put out the fire. Kids love practicing this!
Never go back into the house for any reason
Not even if there is a person inside. When I heard this, my initial reaction was that I didn’t care about my own safety, I would be going back in, but then I heard the reasoning behind this. If you run back in, you are likely to succumb to the smoke yourself, making it two people first responders need to rescue, and taking resources from the first person still trapped inside. Let the firefighters know who is in there and where, and let them go in with proper equipment.
Reinforce with your children that their only job is to get out of the house quickly. Do not stop or go back for pets, toys, or you, just get out of the house.
Talk to your children about fire safety often
It doesn’t need to be heavy-handed or lecture-based. When I taught kindergarten in a preschool, I often had time at the end of the day when the classroom was packed up and we were waiting for parents. I sometimes used this time to go over what we do in a fire, including having them repeat the crawl under the smoke rhyme, or asking, “Do you go back in for your dog?” and having them answer back, “Noooooooo." "Do you go back in for your brother?” “Nooooooooo” etc. It was fun for them, but it was memorable. You can do it in the car, at the doctor’s office, for a few minutes anywhere.
Read fire safety books
The best fire safety book I’ve come across is called “No Tea for Dragons”. It’s an enjoyable rhyming read, but it contains valuable information for kids about fire safety such as never hide during a fire. It is factually accurate, but very accessible. My kids love it.
Visit a fire hall or speak with firefighters
Many local fire departments have programs aimed at educating the public about fire safety (this is where I was given the No Dragons for Tea book!) There is often a community liaison officer who is happy to discuss fire safety with you or your children. Check community fairs and events, the fire department sometimes has a booth filled with resources, colouring books, and sometimes even a fire truck to check out in person!
Fire is scary, and as parents, we all worry about what we would do. Being prepared and making a plan, and getting our kids on board, both gives us the best chance in a real fire and lessens anxiety over a potential one.