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Family Disaster Plan

Home fire-specific planning should include the following:

  • If smoke alarms are not already in place, install them outside each sleeping area and on each additional level of your home in accordance with local codes. Smoke alarms cut your chances of dying in a home fire nearly in half. Smoke alarms sense abnormal amounts of smoke or invisible combustion gases in the air. They can detect both smoldering and flaming fires. The National Fire Alarm Code(r)(NFPA 72) now requires hard-wired smoke alarms in new homes.
  • Draw a floor plan of your home; mark two fire escape routes for each room. In thick, heavy, dark smoke it is easy to become disoriented. Creating a floor plan with two routes greatly helps everyone understand the safest routes during a frightening emergency.
  • Consider escape ladders for sleeping areas on the second or third floor. Learn how to use them, and store them near the window. If main escape routes via stairs are blocked by smoke or fire, the windows may be your only alternative. Escape ladders permit quick exits, reducing time spent in smoke-filled, toxic environments while waiting for firefighters.
  • Burglar bars and locks that block outside window entry must be easy to open from the inside. If a key is required to open bars or locks, keep a key near each window to use for fire escape. Quick-release devices are available for security bars. If smoke or fire is blocking the main exit, you must be able to use your alternate routes quickly. Fire deaths have occurred when people were trapped by security bars and were unable to get out and firefighters were unable to get in.
  • Select a safe outside meeting place for everyone to meet after escaping from a fire. Make sure it will be a safe distance from heat, smoke, and flames. Family members may use different escape routes, exiting on different sides of the home. Gathering in a specific meeting place in front of the home will quickly let you know who is out, and allow you to advise firefighters of who may need help and their probable location inside.
  • Conduct a home fire drill at least twice a year with all members of your household. Fires produce thick, dark smoke that irritates the eyes and breathing passages and can cause confusion. People who have become disoriented in fires have been found in closets, stairwells, and laundry rooms, thinking they were exits. Practicing your plan makes the actual response more of an appropriate reaction, requiring less thinking during an emergency situation.
    1. Practice alerting other household members. Yell "Fire!" several times during your escape. In a real fire this will alert family members to get out.
    2. Practice a crawl-low escape from your bedroom, as if you were crawling under a layer of smoke. Fires produce many toxic gases. Some are heavy and will sink low to the floor; others will rise, carrying soot towards the ceiling. Crawling with your head at a level of one to two feet above the ground will temporarily provide the best air. Close doors behind you.
    3. Practice evacuating the building blindfolded. In a real fire situation, the amount of smoke generated by a fire will most likely make it impossible to see.
    4. Learn the emergency number for your local fire department. After leaving your home, you will need to call this number from an outside phone or from a neighbor's house.
    5. Teach family members to get out first, then call for help from a neighbor's house or outside phone. Get out of the house, away from toxic smoke and gases. If a portable phone is handy during your escape, you may take it with you, but do not waste precious time looking for one. Use your neighbor's phone, a car phone, or nearby pay phone to call for help.
    6. Practice getting out of your home during the day and night. Fire can happen at any time. Practicing your routes at night will help you move more quickly should a fire strike in the dark.
  • Discuss fires with your family. Everyone should know what to do in case all family members are not together. Discussing disaster ahead of time helps reduce fear and lets everyone know how to respond during a fire.

What to Tell Children

  • Practice stop, drop, and roll. Know how to stop, drop, and roll in case your clothes catch on fire. Stop what you are doing, drop to the ground, cover your face, and roll back and forth until the flames go out. Running will only make the fire burn faster. Practicing makes the actual response more of an appropriate reaction, requiring less thinking time during an actual emergency situation. Children have a tendency to confuse this message with messages about escaping from a fire, so make sure that they understand that "stop, drop, and roll" is to be used only when clothing catches on fire. Once the flames are out, cool the burned skin with water for 10 to 15 minutes and get medical attention.
  • Matches and lighters are tools for "grown-ups." These tools help adults use fire properly. Instruct children to tell an adult right away if they find them or see someone playing with fire, matches, or lighters. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) research has shown that children associate tools with grown-ups, and "grown-up" is a term children use for someone in authority.
  • If a fire starts in your home or you hear the smoke alarm, yell "Fire!" several times and go outside right away. Smoke alarms go off because there is enough smoke and toxic gas to cause harm. Yell to let people know the emergency is real, and they should get out. If you live in a building with elevators, use the stairs. Never try to hide from fire. Leave all your things where they are and save yourself.
  • If your escape route is filled with smoke, use your second way out. It is very hard to find your way through thick, heavy smoke. Using your second way out will provide a safer alternative.
  • Practice crawling low. If you must escape through smoke, crawl low, under the smoke, to escape. Fires produce many poisonous gases. Some are heavy and will sink low to the floor; others will rise, carrying soot towards the ceiling. Crawling with your head at a level of one to two feet above the ground will temporarily provide the best air. Close doors behind you.
  • If you are escaping through a closed door, feel the door, cracks, and doorknob with the back of your hand before opening the door. If it is cool and there is no smoke at the bottom or top, open the door slowly. If you see smoke or fire beyond the door, close it and use your second way out. If the door is at all warm, use your second way out. It is a natural tendency to automatically use the door, but fire may be right outside. Feeling the door will warn you of possible danger. The back of your hand is more sensitive to heat than the palm or fingers.
  • If smoke, heat, or flames block your exit routes and you cannot get outside safely, stay in the room with the door closed. Open the window for ventilation, and hang a sheet outside the window so firefighters can find you. If there is a phone in the room, call the fire department and tell them where you are. Seal around doors and vents with duct tape, towels, or sheets to help slow deadly smoke from entering the room. Wait by the window for help. The first thing firefighters will do when they arrive at a fire is check for trapped persons. Hanging a sheet out lets them know where to find you.
  • Get out as safely and quickly as you can. The less time you are exposed to poisonous gases, heat, or flames, the safer you will be.
    Once you are outside, go to your meeting place and then send one person to call the fire department. Ask children if they know where their outside meeting place is. Tell them to go directly to this meeting place in case of a fire and stay there. Gathering in a specific outside location in front will quickly let you know who is outside, and allow you to advise firefighters of who may need help and their probable location inside.
  • Once you are out, stay out. Children are often concerned about the safety of their pets, so discuss this issue before a fire starts. In many cases, pets are able to get out on their own. Many people are overcome by smoke and poisonous gases while trying to rescue others, pets, or possessions. No one should go into a burning or smoking building except a trained firefighter who has proper breathing apparatus and protective clothing.
  • Firefighters are our friends, and they will help in case of a fire. Visit a fire station to help ease children's fears. A fire suit and mask are often frightening and children may try to hide from a firefighter in full protective gear.


Information compiled from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.