When you’re busy with everyday life, the idea of your home catching on fire might seem like a distant threat. But a blaze can erupt unexpectedly, such as from a cooking mishap, a dropped cigarette, or faulty heating, lighting, or electrical appliances. The flames and smoke could spread through your home within 1 or 2 minutes, leaving you little time to escape.
A fire evacuation plan can help everyone in your home escape safely.
How Do You Create a Fire Evacuation Plan?
It's important that everyone in the household know what to do should a fire break out, what early warning signs can be critical, and what escape routes can be taken.
Install smoke alarms on each level of your home. Place one in and outside every room where someone sleeps Your smoke alarms need to be interconnected -- meaning if one sounds off, they all do -- to meet safety codes.
Teach everyone in your family, especially children, what your smoke alarms sound like. Explain that if an alarm goes off, it means everybody needs to go outside and stay out. Only fire crew members should go back inside a burning building for people or pets.
Check for exits and escape routes. Walk through your home and look for two ways (if possible) to get out of each room, like through a door and a window. If you have kids, you could draw a simple floor-plan map of your home and mark these ways out.
Let your family members know that the safest escape route during a fire is the one with the least smoke and heat.
Choose a place for all of you to meet outside, and mark it on your map. The meetup spot should be a safe distance from your home, like at a neighbor’s house, a light post, or a mailbox.
Set up a family contact plan. Tell each of your family members who they should call in case you can’t find each other once you’re outside.
Double-check security devices. Do your windows or doors have security bars? If so, make sure the bars have built-in emergency release devices, so you can open them right away in case a fire breaks out.
Be ready to assist loved ones. You might be living with relatives who would need help getting out of the house during a fire, like:
- Babies or children younger than 6 years old
- Elderly adults
- Someone who has trouble moving
Choose able-bodied family members to help these loved ones during practice fire drills and in case of a real fire. Assign backup helpers if you can, too, in case your first choices aren’t home.
Learn the fire department’s phone number. Write it down, put it into your cellphone, and help everyone in your family memorize it. In general, call the fire department or 911 after you’ve safely escaped outside.
Make sure your home’s street number is visible. It should be easy to see from the road, so fire crews and other first responders can spot it. If it isn’t visible, paint it on the curb or install numbers on the front of your home.
Share your fire evacuation plan. When guests stay in your home, tell them about your plan. If you or someone in your family stays overnight at a friend’s home, ask them if they have a fire escape plan. If they don’t, you could offer to help them make one. It’s extra important to ask when your child sleeps over at a friend’s house, for example.
How Should You Test Your Plan?
Once you’ve written down your fire evacuation plan and discussed it with everyone in your home, take these steps to make sure it works well:
Run a practice fire drill twice a year. Try it once at night and once during the day. Use your smoke alarm’s test button to sound the siren -- or simply shout “fire” -- and then put your evacuation plan into motion.
Have everyone who lives with you participate, and practice it using different ways out of the home. Aim to have everybody get outside of your home in under 2 minutes. If it takes longer, try again. You can download the “Make Safe Happen” app for a timer to practice your evacuation plan.
Teach your children. Help them get the hang of the escape plan by practicing it during the day first. Then do a fire drill at night after they’ve gone to sleep. You can tell them before bedtime that you’re going to do a drill so they’re not scared when you wake them up.
It’s also a good idea to show your children how to:
- Escape by themselves in case you can’t help them
- Use the back of their hand to check closed doors for heat before they open them
- Find a different way out if a door feels hot
- Close any doors they pass through on their way out. This can slow the fire’s spread and buy more time to escape.
Also, teach your children how to stop, drop, and roll to help put out the flames if their clothes catch fire. This means they should:
- Stop where they are.
- Drop to the ground and cover their eyes and mouth with their hands.
- Roll over and over and back and forth until the flames are gone.
- Ask a grown-up to help them cool the burn and get them medical care.
Practice crawling under smoke. A real-life fire can give off thick smoke that makes it hard to breathe and see. If you need to escape through a smoky part of your home, drop to your hands and knees to get under it. Practice this during a fire drill by having everyone crawl to an exit.
Keep escape routes clear. Move any items that could block a door or window and make it harder to get out. Barriers to be aware of include:
- Christmas trees or other decorations
- Hurricane shutters
- Nails or paint holding a window shut
- Plastic window insulation for cold weather
Consider escape ladders. If you live in a two-story home, it’s important for everyone (kids included) to be able to escape from rooms on the second floor. You could consider installing escape ladders in or near windows to make this possible.
Follow the manufacturer’s directions on how to set up and use a ladder. You’ll need to do this quickly during a fire, so practice. Also have your children practice climbing down the ladder from a first-floor window, only while you or another adult watches them. Keep any escape ladder you buy near the window where you intend to use it, so you’ll know where to find it during a fire.
Test your smoke alarms. Follow the manufacturer’s directions on how to do this. Check the alarms once a month to make sure they’re working -- many alarms come with a “test” button. Replace the batteries at least once a year, too.
When you practice a fire drill at night, use your alarms’ “test” function to find out if the sound wakes up your loved ones. If it doesn’t wake them, assign someone to wake any heavy sleepers in your home in case of a real fire.
Remind others to close doors. Studies show that closed doors can create a barrier between you and harmful smoke, carbon monoxide, and flames during a fire. If someone is trapped in a burning building, closed doors can potentially save their life if they aren’t able to escape. Experts have found that during a fire, rooms with closed doors had temperatures of less than 100 F, while rooms with opened doors were over 1,000 degrees.
In larger buildings (like apartments or other high-rise complexes), most fire codes require doors to be spring-loaded so that they’ll automatically close during a fire. Open doors can allow for deadly smoke to spread quickly through large buildings. If doors aren’t automatically closing behind you, close them as you exit the building during a fire.
What Should You Do if You Live in a High-Rise?
If you live several stories off the ground in an apartment or condo unit, your fire evacuation plan should include:
Learn about all the fire safety features in your building. These could include fire alarms, sprinkler systems, and an escape plan for all residents. You can ask your landlord or the building’s manager to walk you through these features.
If your building doesn’t have a sprinklersystem, ask your landlord or the managers to install one.
Find out where all the exit stairs on your floor are. That way, if one flight of stairs is blocked by smoke or fire, you can use another one. In general, you shouldn’t use a building’s elevator unless the fire department tells you to.
Still, some buildings have elevators that are meant for emergency use. If your building has one, it should have a marking or sign that specifies it’s safe to use in case of an emergency.
Check your floor’s exit and stairwell doors. They should be:
- Clearly marked as exits
- Not blocked by clutter
- Not locked or sealed off by security bars
If you see flames or smoke in your unit or in the building, pull the fire alarm before you leave to alert your neighbors and the fire department.
If you hear the fire alarm go off, don’t open any closed doors in your unit until you use the back of your hand to feel for heat. If the door is hot, try to find another safe way out. If it’s cool, you can open it. Close all doors behind you on your way out.
If you hear an announcement through your building’s speaker system, listen carefully and follow the instructions.
What if You Get Trapped During a Fire?
Heavy smoke or flames might block your escape routes. Or you might be trapped in a high-rise apartment or condo with no safe way down. Use these steps to seal yourself in for safety while you wait for a fire crew.
- Shut all doors between yourself and the fire.
- Plug door cracks and cover air vents with duct tape or wet towels to block smoke.
- If possible, open any windows in the room at the top and bottom so fresh air can come in. Close them if it makes the smoke worse.
- Call the fire department or 911 and tell them exactly where you are. Once they arrive, try to flag them down by waving a flashlight or a bright cloth out the window.