Staring at dancing flames and listening to the crackle and pop of a campfire can be a relaxing and fun way to spend an evening. But while such fires can be a great opportunity for family bonding, fire is of course a deadly force, and its capacity for destruction should never be underestimated.
For a fire to exist, three elements must always be present: fuel, a heat source, and oxygen. The exothermic chemical reaction that results from this trio sustains a fire and allows it to spread. If any one of the three elements is removed, a fire can be extinguished. Unfortunately, many house fires spread so rapidly that escape takes priority over extinguishment. All families, particularly those with young children, should be prepared for the possibility of a house fire.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), more than 3,400 U.S. residents die in fires every year. Ninety percent of these deaths occur in home fires. And perhaps most tragically, when the source of a fire is attributed to “playing with a heat source,” children under the age of 10 make up 93% of related deaths. Children under age 5 are especially at risk; their natural curiosity about fire and their inability to escape from one without adult assistance makes for a deadly combination. Of all children under age 14 who die in home fires, more than half of them are under 5.
These alarming statistics point to a need for families to take steps to prevent a fire, teach their children what to do in a fire, and prepare the entire family for the possibility of a fire. Some time spent in preparation can make the difference between life and death in the future.
Creating a Fire Escape Plan
While the idea of escaping a home during a fire may seem self-explanatory, it’s easy to underestimate how quickly a fire can spread, panicking family members caught unaware. Experts in fire safety recommend a written or drawn exit plan that has been practiced by the family as a group.
Fire escape plans will vary between individual homes, but all of them should have the following three elements:
- Every room in the home should be clearly marked; ensure that pre-reading children understand that the escape route differs from different room to room.
- Two exits from every room should be identified. This is crucial, because a blocked hallway is not uncommon in house fires. Secondary exits are usually windows or doors into another room.
- A pre-designated meeting spot for the family outside of the house. This should be clearly identified; younger children may better understand landmarks like an oak tree near the curb or a neighbor’s mailbox. The meeting place should be where emergency responders can easily see you, but far enough from a burning home to be safe.
Some families need to consider other factors depending on their living situation. Infants, toddlers or disabled family members need assistance getting out of the home; some families assign one adult to each family member who needs help. A backup adult in case the whole family isn’t home is also a thoughtful step. Homes with second stories should be equipped with drop ladders from each window in the event that a secondary exit is necessary. High-rise condominiums may have security bars over the windows; ensure that these have quick-release capability in case of emergency.
Drawing out a fire escape plan helps children to visualize what to do and may help you discover alternate escape routes you may not have noticed before. Predefined templates for this purpose are useful, as are smartphone apps that can help you devise your plan.
Even the most thorough escape plan is unlikely to be useful if it’s not practiced. Ideally, families with young children will practice their escape routes a couple of times a year. Escapes should be modeled from each room in the house and using both primary and secondary exits. It’s also wise to practice as though an actual fire is in progress; this means keeping low to the floor to escape toxic smoke, closing doors as you pass through them to slow the fire’s spread, and checking closed doors for heat or flames before they’re opened. Children can be taught to operate drop ladders on first-story windows. Lastly, time your exit practices with a stopwatch, practice escaping as quickly as possible.
Best Practices for Your Family’s Safety
Preparing your family for the actuality of a home fire goes beyond creating an escape plan. Fire safety experts also offer these tips on quickly exiting the home without further endangering life and limb.
- Be aware that young children naturally hide in scary situations, and seeing a firefighter dressed in full fire gear in a dark, smoky house can be terrifying to them. Teach them that emergency responders are the good guys and are there to help them escape. Familiarize them with firefighters’ uniforms.
- Demonstrate and practice Stop, Drop and Roll in the event that clothing catches fire.
- Make your family aware that fire can spread very quickly, and you may have only minutes to exit the building safely. Understand that children are naturally fascinated by fire; make it very clear how dangerous it actually is.
- Show each family member how to check whether it’s safe to open a closed door by feeling the doorknob and hinges for heat.
- Clarify that most fire dangers are not from burns, but from smoke inhalation. Have family members practice holding a towel or piece of clothing over their mouths (moist, if possible), and keep to the cleaner air that’s closer to the floors.
- In the event that someone gets stuck in a room, practice covering the cracks around the door to prevent smoke and toxic fumes from entering. If the secondary exit is unusable (such as in a high-rise building or where there is no drop ladder), he or she should wait by a window and wave a light-colored item that firefighters can see.
- Stress that everyone’s first priority is exiting the home. Phone calls to the fire department should be made after exiting, and no one should ever re-enter a burning home.
It’s best to assume that no child should attempt to put out a fire, but instead should run and call for help. Sometimes, older children or teens can be taught the proper methods for putting out small fires. Fire extinguishers work best in small, contained areas, like a wastebasket or inside an oven. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends a mnemonic acronym for fire extinguisher usage: PASS. To properly use a fire extinguisher:
- Pull the pin
- Aim low
- Squeeze the lever evenly
- Sweep the nozzle from side to side.
Water should never be used on a grease fire or electrical fire.
Identifying Fire Hazards in the Home
Examining your home carefully for potential fire hazards can save your children’s lives, not to mention prevent the loss and rebuilding of the family’s home and belongings. The protection provided by smoke detectors is essential. Smoke detectors should be installed in or just outside every bedroom, and throughout the rest of the home. Acquaint your children with the alarm sound so they’ll recognize it if the time comes. Test the batteries often and change them twice a year; many families use the Daylight Savings Time switch as a reminder for this task.
Every kitchen should have a fire extinguisher. Young children should not be allowed to cook unsupervised; likewise, pots and pans on the stovetop should be turned inward so that curious toddlers cannot reach the handles. Many families also store cleaning supplies in the kitchen; take care to keep flammable liquids away from heat sources.
Space heaters, a common culprit in home fires, should be placed 3 feet away from any flammable item and should always be turned off when not in use. Frayed cords from appliances or extension cords should be replaced, and electrical outlets should be covered in homes where toddlers live. Resist the temptation to overload extension cords, especially with high-amperage appliances. Fireplaces should be screened, and only slow-burning hardwoods should be used inside the home.
Garages are typically used to store vehicles, their accessories, and items from household projects like paint. Gasoline should be covered tightly in plastic containers, and paint must be stored in its original paint can. Oily or greasy rags should be stored in a sealed container. As with kitchens, flammable liquids should be kept away from heat sources. Do not store old newspapers; warm, damp newsprint can spontaneously combust. Consider an attached garage as an exit strategy, and keep a pathway clear of obstructions in case your family needs to evacuate suddenly.
Holiday seasons bring their own brand of fire hazards; the NFPA reports that fires originating from lit candles doubles during December. Burn decorative candles with care, and blow them out when leaving a room. If you have a freshly-cut Christmas tree, water it frequently. Dried evergreen needles, perhaps having been sparked by old and frayed tree lights, can become a blazing fire with amazing speed.
Don’t overlook the outdoor areas of your home, where fire hazards may also lurk. Remove any dead shrubbery or plant life that is near the home’s foundation. Store your gas or charcoal grill well away from the home, and store lawnmowers away from heat sources when not in use. Lastly, ensure that the roofing materials used on your home are flame-retardant.
When You Need to Call for Help
Most children, even young children, can memorize the numbers 9-1-1. Teaching kids when to call can be a bit more difficult, but it’s important that your children know that if ever in doubt, calling is appropriate. If a child is in an emergency, he or she will understandably be frightened and panicky. Fortunately, fire dispatch professionals are trained to calm excited children and work with them to send assistance.
Nearly all 911 call centers are equipped with locator technology, so it’s not entirely necessary that your child know your street address. It’s still a good idea, however; some families teach children a song that contains their name, address and phone number. A scared child may not remember his parent’s first name, but may still be able to sing the song if encouraged.
Distinguish between giving personal details to strangers and answering questions from a 911 dispatcher or emergency first responder. Recognize that many children feel as though they are being quizzed if they are asked a series of questions, which may prompt them to invent perceived “right” answers. Explain that it’s permissible to tell a dispatcher that he or she doesn’t know the answer.
Emergency dispatchers typically ask a series of questions about location, the type of emergency and whether anyone in the house needs immediate assistance. Dispatchers also keep callers on the line until first responders arrive, so make sure your child understands not to hang up.
Role-playing can be an especially useful way to coach children in how to properly call for help when an adult is not present. Christie Sims, a dispatcher for Tompkins County in New York, says that children older than about 4 can be taught to call 911; younger children are unlikely to grasp the concept of an emergency or how to respond to one.
The Aftermath of a Home Fire
Even if your family escaped injury, a home fire can have devastating emotional and financial consequences. Children, especially younger children who may not fully understand what happened, are sometimes quite traumatized by the experience. Not surprisingly, parents are also overwhelmed by mountains of paperwork, insurance claims, and the temporary housing search. If you’ve just gone through such an experience, remember that the enormous administrative tasks you face should not overshadow your child’s emotional reaction to a house fire.
The distress your child may experience could originate from being dislocated from their home, the loss of a pet or beloved toys, the absence of typical routine or worry about injury or injured family members. The family could even be temporarily broken up immediately after a fire. Symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are not unusual in children in these situations; such symptoms can include:
- Fear of another fire
- Strong reaction to sirens or fire engines
- Separation anxiety or clinginess
- Increased worry about other friends and relatives
- Irritability or depression
- Poor performance in school
- Nightmares or insomnia
- Exacerbated pre-existing medical conditions
Recovering from emotional trauma is often a matter of time. A regular schedule, plenty of sleep, and good nutrition in the absence of home-cooked meals are all good steps toward helping your child rebound. Writing thoughts in a diary may be beneficial, and sometimes therapy is necessary. If your child is experiencing trauma from a home fire, continue to reassure him or her that life will eventually return to normal.
Additional Fire Safety Resources
You may find these resources helpful in teaching your children to respect fire and in educating them about the potential of a home fire.
- USFA Kids: FEMA’s U.S. Fire Administration for Kids page explains fire safety in the home, smoke alarms and how to escape from a fire in easy-to-understand language. Games like crossword puzzles and matching games help younger children grasp the concept of fire safety.
- Sparky.org: This entertaining and interactive site offers games, cartoons and fun activities for children as Sparky the Fire Dog explains fire safety.
- Fire Safe Kids!: This site focuses on the practical application of fire safety. Games, activity worksheets and coloring pages allow children to “practice” proper escape techniques and understand fires, and an Ask a Firefighter feature puts kids in direct contact with a firefighter.
- Arthur’s Fire Safety Tips: This popular PBS cartoon character addresses kids directly about fire hazards and preparation for a potential fire. Games, video, activity pages and a friends community round out Arthur’s advice.
- Kids Fire Safety Tips: Animated characters Buzzy the Smoke Detector, Reddy the Fire Extinguisher and Squirt the Water Drop illustrate safety tips for children in a home fire.
- Dalmatian: The history of the lovable spotted Dalmatian and its association with firefighters is explained in detail.
Parents who have children who are overly curious about fire may also find these resources to be helpful:
- Children Playing with Fire: This video from the NFPA discusses the rules and consequences that must be established for children who light fires.
- Counseling Children Who Play with Fire: Directed toward school counselors who may be called to work with fire-setting children, this article explores the motivations of fireplay and methods by which it can be discouraged.
- Types of Fire-setters: The American Psychological Association has identified six reasons that children may be motivated to start fires. A link to treatment methodology for these children is also included.
- What to Do if Your Child Sets Fires: The Portland, OR Fire Department has created this resources for parents of fire-setting children and adolescents. Common myths about the motivations behind fire-setting and detailed profiling of fire-setters are explained.
- Kids and Fire Setting: The Burn Center at the Children’s Hospital of Colorado offers this resource to parents. Tips on how to know when a child has crossed from curious to dangerous behavior and warning signs of deliberate fire-setters are included.