Contact Us   Site Map
Airline Mismanagement

Fires, for most people, are warm, friendly, romantic, and sweet smelling.

A house fire is none of these things.  It is ugly, acrid, and dangerous.

Forewarned is forearmed, and if you ever do encounter a 'real' fire, this information will help you know what to do.

 
 
Travel Planning and Assistance
Road Warrior resources
How to Book and Buy Travel
Scary, Silly and Stupid Security Stories
Airline Reviews
Airline (Mis)!Management
Miscellaneous Features
Reference Materials
About the Travel Insider
 
Search
Looking for something else? Search over two million words of free information on our site.
Custom Search
 
Free Newsletter

In addition to our feature articles, we offer you a free weekly newsletter with a mix of news and opinions on travel related topics.

 

 View Sample
Privacy Policy

 
Help this Site
Thank you for your interest in helping this site to continue to develop. Some of the information we give you here can save you thousands of dollars the next time you're arranging travel, or will substantially help the quality of your travel experiences in other, non-cash ways. Click for more information
 
Reader's Replies

If you'd like to add your own commentary, send me a note.

Fire Safety Tips - Responding to a Fire

Follow these simple guidelines and you might save your life and your property
 

A house fire can go from a spark to this in under five minutes!  Shortly thereafter, the house will be completely engulfed.

Knowing what to do when at the small spark stage might save your house.  And knowing what to do when it is no longer controllable might save your life.

The savagery of an out of control fire is evil and terrifying.  Hopefully you'll never encounter one personally.

Part 2 of a 2 part series - part 1 discusses fire safety planning and precautions that will hopefully prevent a fire breaking out in the first place.

 

 

Most of us will probably lead our entire lives unaffected by fire.  But the savage brutality and lethal destructiveness of fire is so extreme that you need to read the following material because, for sure, forewarned is forearmed.

Most importantly, read the warnings and recommendations that you don't fight a fire unless you're 200% certain it is safe to do so.


Fighting Fires - Caution is better than Bravado

Fires are complex, unpredictable, very fast growing, and terribly dangerous.  Remember that a spark can become a room fully ablaze in three minutes, and can progress to the entire house ablaze in six minutes.

Even trained fire fighters, with proper equipment, will fight a major house fire first from the outside, not the inside.

You should do the same.  A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and the following is offered not to encourage you to stay and fight a fire that you can't defeat, but rather to help you better understand the issues.

Professional fire fighters uniformly recommend you to adopt caution - a synonym for good sense - rather than foolish bravado.  It is braver (and better) to evacuate a burning house and passively watch it burn than it is to risk your life fighting a fire to no good purpose.

The most common thread of comment/suggestion from professionals in the fire prevention and fire fighting fields has been to stress that ordinary untrained people, without special equipment, should never risk themselves fighting a household fire.

Only if you catch a fire in the very first 'safe' stages of development should you consider pausing to see if you can contain it.  In all other cases, give yourself and your safety the benefit of the doubt and evacuate immediately.

If you do attempt to fight a fire, ensure that behind you is a clear protected way to evacuate at all times.  Never allow fire, smoke, or heat to get between you and your exit.

And so with those imperative cautionary comments kept strongly in your mind -

Fighting Fires - Preparation

So you discover a fire.  What do you do next?  You're faced with a classic 'fight or flight' dilemma.  Do you attempt to control the fire, or do you evacuate the premises and call the local Fire Department?  (Or, do you do both simultaneously?)

This is where you're going to have to use some common sense.  Speaking from bitter personal experience, common sense is in short supply at such a stress filled time.

But try and evaluate, as a priority, if the fire poses a danger to yourself or to anyone else nearby.  If there is any danger, only do things to minimize the danger to people - ignore all property issues.  Step one must be to protect human life.

Only at that point, consider if the fire can be successfully and safely fought by you.  There are three things to consider here :

(a)  Do I know all about the fire, or might there be more fire that I can't see (from another room, or another level of the building)?

If you don't know the complete extent of the fire, assume the worst and evacuate.

(b)  If you know the full extent of the fire, can you safely fight it in terms of having access to a safe exit if the fire continues/grows, and are you protected from smoke and other toxic gas inhalation?

Property fires are very different to bonfires or fireplace fires, because they're not just burning clean untreated wood.  The fire will be incinerating all sorts of chemicals, including possibly toxic treated wood, plastics, paints, food stuffs, and who only knows what else, and generating massive amounts of gaseous products of the fire, probably in a moderately unventilated space, instead of the great outdoors (or even a properly vented fireplace.

A lung full of house-fire smoke is immeasurably more carcinogenic and toxic than a lung full of bonfire smoke blown your way by a random wind outside.  If in doubt, evacuate.  You'll earn the respect, not derision, of the professional firefighters by being cautious.

(c)  Do you have adequate means to fight the fire?

Fire extinguishers are good for small blazes only, and garden hoses have water outputs probably in the 2 - 5 gallon/minute range (compare that to a high pressure fire hose that can output typically 50 - 150 gallons/minute - thirty times as much ('Master Stream' hoses have a 350+ gallon/minute capacity).  A garden hose can help fight a small blaze, but will have no effect at all against a major blaze.

Fire Extinguishers

If you are confronting a fire that you can safely fight, your best tool is a fire extinguisher.  You should have at least one in your house (ideally more than one), and this should be located away from the likely places where a fire would start.

Why is this?  Because, once a fire has started, an extinguisher close to the fire will quickly become unreachable, and therefore, totally useless.  Better to spend a very few seconds retrieving an extinguisher from somewhere else, than not to be able to use the one that is now surrounded by flames.

Buy the biggest and best fire extinguishers you can afford (see the Resources section below).  Don't get ones that will be too heavy for you to use.

Get fire extinguishers with gauges on them to show if their charge remains full or not, and try and remember to check the gauges once or twice a year.  Many people have created a set of house checking rituals to be done each time daylight saving starts and stops; this is a good idea.

Garden Hoses

Keep garden hoses close to (or affixed to) taps, with suitable nozzles on them or next to them.  We recommend heavy brass nozzles so you can use the hose and nozzle to smash in a window if needed to then squirt at the fire inside.

Know how far each hose can reach so you have an idea of what parts of your house can be defended with hoses.

Computer Data

Increasingly, much of our lives resides on our computers, and even if you back up your computer's data, you might keep the backup of the data alongside the computer.  In a fire, you'd then lose both the computer and your backup.

Consider either keeping your backup copies somewhere different (at your office rather than at your house, and vice versa) or using one of the remote backup services that back your data up over the internet and store it safely somewhere else.

Vehicles

Fires are amazingly hot.  I've seen full bore house fires blister, burn and sometimes ignite cars parked on the other side of the street.

If time, safety and circumstance allows, move your vehicles as far away from your house as you can (and be sure not to block access for the Fire Department when they arrive).

Make sure you have spare car keys somewhere you can access in an emergency.  How terrible you'd feel if your car keys were in the kitchen, and so too was your fire, making the keys unreachable.

Fighting Fires - Practicalities

Fires are a bit like living creatures and require three similar things - heat, fuel to 'eat', and air to 'breathe'.  You can 'kill' a fire by depriving it of any one of these three things.

So, there you are, confronting a fire.  What to do?  First, determine if it is a fire you should fight or flee from.

If you can safely combat the fire, and if it isn't so big as to make any attempts you make irrelevant, and if you've made certain that everyone else in the house has safely exited, then perhaps it makes sense to start fighting the fire.

Using a Fire Blanket

If it is a small to medium sized fat or oil fire on the stove top, a fire blanket can be a great way to smother the flames quickly and cleanly.  But be sure to use a proper fire blanket - improvised things like wet towels might work, but equally might not work and might end up feeding the hungry growing fire.  (See the Resources below for information on buying fire blankets).  A fire blanket works by 'suffocating' the fire - taking away the air it needs.

Using a Fire Extinguisher

The next step, if needed, is to use your fire extinguisher(s).  Squirt the extinguisher broadly at the base of the fire.  When (if!) the fire has stopped, don't stop the extinguisher.  Keep squirting short bursts at where the flames where until the extinguisher is empty - a half discharged extinguisher can't be kept for 'next time' and the longer you keep the flames out, the more the area has a chance to cool, and the less likely it is they'll restart when you've stopped spraying them with the powder.

A dry powder fire extinguisher also works by cutting off the air from the fire.

Using a Hose

If you've used up your extinguishers and the fire is still there (or even if there isn't but you see smoldering embers), it is now time for the garden hose.  And also time for an attitude adjustment on your part.  If your extinguishers didn't kill the fire (you did buy good big ones, didn't you?), you've got a major problem on your hands.  You're no longer trying to simply and easily stop a silly little fire, but instead you're fighting for your house; and the fire is probably bigger and more serious than you thought.

So, first thing before you continue fighting the fire, time to call in the reinforcements - if you haven't done so already, call the Fire Department.  And then re-evaluate your actions - should you really be trying to fight this fire, or should you step back and wait for the Fire Department to arrive?

If you decide you can safely deploy a hose, and if you think it may have some beneficial effect, you can do so carefully.  And so, back to your fire.  Don't pull your punches.  Don't think about water damage - water damage is many times more benign than fire damage!  Don't worry about breaking a window, or doing any other damage as part of your fire fighting - better to break a window than to have the whole house burn down.

Either feed the hose in through a window, or consider, as an alternative simply smashing in the window and then spraying the water in from outside.  Fighting the fire from outside the house is clearly much preferable to doing it from inside - you've less worry about getting out, and much less smoke and fume inhalation issues.

We suggest you have heavy brass nozzles on your hoses - that way you can use the hose and nozzle as a way to smash in the window in an emergency.

A warning about breaking open windows.  If the fire is burning in an enclosed room (doors and windows currently shut) it's growth may be limited by a lack of oxygen supply.  In such a case, breaking a window would allow a sudden influx of oxygen, allowing the fire to suddenly grow in size massively.  This concept of a 'backdraft' was featured in the movie of the same name, and is a bad thing.

As an aside, if you're interested in movies about fires, in addition to Backdraft, a couple of fireman have recommended the movie Ladder 49, which they say is more realistic.  Both are good.

Back to breaking windows.  One more warning.  If you're putting glass between yourself and the fire, don't do anything that might cause the fire to 'explode' in a way that might then cause the glass to shatter and blow out towards you.  The last thing you need is a face full of broken glass to add to your troubles.  Stand to one side and swing the hose to break the window while you're under cover.

Use your hose both to limit the spread of the fire and to control the fire itself.  Squirt ceilings and walls around and above the fire to prevent the fire spreading to them, and squirt into the fire itself.  Water works two ways in fighting fires - by removing the heat, and (in the form of both water and steam) preventing air from reaching the fire.

Specific Types of Fires

Electrical Fires

Is the electricity encouraging the fire (ie giving it heat) or was it just the original source of the fire?  If it is feeding the fire, perhaps the first thing you should do is kill the electricity to the house back at the breaker box.

Powder extinguishers can be used against electrical fires safely, and so too can regular hoses and water, just so long as you're not in some way presenting yourself as part of a path for the electricity to travel through.  In other words, don't ground yourself - for example, don't hold on to a metal tap (but a metal hose nozzle is okay), or don't stand bare footed on wet ground.  In each case, electricity could potentially flow from the fire, back up the stream of water, through you, and then on to the ground that you are also touching.

Gas related Fires

If you have a ruptured gas line feeding a fire (or even just a stove top burner switched on) you should turn the gas flow off before extinguishing the fire.

If you leave the gas on and extinguish the fire, the flow of gas might cause the fire to re-ignite, and could possibly trigger a gas explosion in the process.

Powder extinguishers and water can both be used safely against gas fed fires.

Oil and Fat Fires

Powder extinguishers can be used against oil and fat fires.

Water is often not recommended to be used against these types of fires, for two reasons.  The first is that the water might form a surface for the burning liquid oil (or fat) to flow along, helping it to spread.

The second reason can be much more spectacular (in a bad rather than good way).  If you have a large volume of very hot oil, and then pour a small volume of water into that large volume of very hot oil, the water instantly turns to steam and expands in volume 2000 fold, causing a spectacular eruption in the oil, and, of course, causing the oil to spray everywhere with the water/steam.

Not only does this spread the fire, but the surface area of the burning oil has been multiplied enormously, and this can make for a huge flare up.

Here's a video that shows a 'worst case' scenario of such a thing.

So, be careful when squirting water onto an oil/fat fire.

There's some good news about oil type fires, however.  If you can control the spread of the fire, then when the initial supply of oil has burned itself out, there's no more fuel for the fire.  So perhaps your best strategy with an oil fire is to try and contain the fire by spraying water all around the burning oil.

Fires Go Up First and Down Second

Forget the law of gravity.  Heat rises, and flames go upwards.  A fire beneath you is an extreme danger; a fire above you is slightly less extreme.

If, for example, you have a fire on the middle floor of a tri-level house, you could consider briefly going downstairs to get some family heirlooms or whatever, until the middle level's floor was burning, but the danger there is that when the floor/ceiling above you does catch, it might start collapsing, raining burning debris and beams onto you.  Not a pleasant experience and most people are best advised resisting the temptation to go downstairs for any reason.

However you'd absolutely not want to go upstairs under any circumstance at all, because you've no way of knowing when the fire isn't going to burn through the middle level ceiling and suddenly overwhelm the upper level.

After the Fire

If you've had anything more than the very smallest of fires - eg, perhaps a toaster catching on fire - and if there is any sort of heat damage to surrounding areas, you may have problems with invisible 'hot spots' - places that are quietly smoldering away, even after you've put the visible flames out.

These places might be out of sight - for example, hot smoke and flames might have been going up a stove exhaust ventilator flue, and might have created a dangerous hot spot at a bend in the flue, three or six feet away.  These hot spots might suddenly break out into fire any time in the next hour or two (or three).

For this reason, if you haven't done so already, consider calling the Fire Department and asking them to come around with one of their infra red hot spot locators.  This device will detect hot spots that aren't immediately obvious to you.

You (or the Fire Department - better if them) are going to need to cut away at walls, ceilings, floors, etc, until you get to building material that is cool rather than warm/hot.  Only at that point can you be sure you've eliminated the potential for hot spots.

Getting Help

Don't hesitate to call the Fire Department.  They are a free resource for us all, paid for by our tax dollars.  They truly are the trained professionals, and if you have any type of fire, it is only sensible to call them.

Indeed, if you didn't call the Fire Department, your insurance company might subsequently argue the claim with you, contending that you didn't act prudently, and suggesting that the fire damage might have been less if you'd called them rather than fighting the fire yourself.

It is better to call the Fire Department, then get the fire under control and call them back to tell them about this while they're on their way, than it is to not call them until it is too late for them to do anything when they get there.

Use your Home Phone

If you need to call the Fire Department, try and use your home phone if possible.  Of course, if your house is ablaze, don't stay inside the house!  But if you can, for example, take a cordless phone outside, that would be a safe way of calling on your landline.  But take your cell phone with you too, because maybe the fire will burn through the cordless phone's base station before your call is completed.

The reason for calling from your home phone is because this will immediately display your address on their screen, simplifying the process of dispatching help to you.

Once you've called the Fire Department, relax and wait for their arrival.  Your job is over now, leave the rest for the professionals.

The 911 dispatcher will probably want you to stay on the line, so you can give updated details of the fire while the response teams are on their way.

It is unlikely the fire trucks will arrive in much less than five minutes, but very likely they'll be there in less than ten.

Check the 911 Records

Here's a simple step you should take to ensure there are no problems if/when you ever need to call 911.  Call them up to confirm that their computer system displays your correct address.

The suggested way of doing this is to call them and, when they answer, say 'This is a non emergency test call, is it convenient for you to take this call currently?'.  If the person answers no, apologize and hang up.  If they answer yes, then explain you are checking that their records match your physical street address, and confirm that their computer display shows the correct address information.

Note - I read somewhere a claim that it is a state offense in some states to call 911 for non-emergency matters.  But I've never heard of someone being prosecuted for calling as outlined above; indeed, I do know that people such as phone system programmers will routinely test newly installed phone systems in a similar manner to make sure their speed dialing and 'Least Cost Routing' has been correctly set up so that 911 calls correct pass through.

Meet the Fire Department on the Street

If your house is obscured from the street, or even if it is visible from the street, go and meet the Fire Department on the street.  Tell the 911 dispatcher that you will go and flag them down on the street - if at night take a flashlight with you.  Spell this out so the message gets radioed on to the fire trucks - say 'tell the fire truck drivers to watch out for me - I'll be madly waving and jumping up and down on the side of the street'.

This helps the Fire Department because they don't have to slow down and start checking house numbers - they just look for the person madly waving and jumping up and down!

Resources

Many of the items mentioned and recommended above can be found at Home Depot or similar type stores.  In addition, here are links to the relevant pages of Amazon, with a wide range of each type of fire safety product for you to choose between.

Smoke Detectors :  You'll see some are ionization type, some are photo-electric, some are dual mode, and some include carbon monoxide detectors too).

Fire Extinguishers :  Better to have one that is too big than one that is too small.

Escape Ladders :  The quality of these is perhaps not as critical as the quality of your smoke detectors and fire extinguishers.

House Numbers :  The bigger the better, and illuminated numbers are best of all.

Fire Blankets :  One of these is the easiest way to prevent a small to medium sized oil/fat fire, and is much less messier than using a fire extinguisher.

Summary

A house fire can very quickly transition from insignificant to out of control.  If you discover any type of fire, the first thing you should do is ensure the safety of yourself and everyone else in the house.

If you can safely fight the fire yourself, it may be sensible and proper to do so.  But no-one will criticize you if you simply evacuate the building.

Some simple preparations and precautions, as mentioned in the first part of this article, can greatly reduce the negative impacts of a fire.

Read more in Part 1

In Part 1 we discuss fire safety planning and precautions that will hopefully prevent a fire breaking out in the first place.

 

If so, please donate to keep the website free and fund the addition of more articles like this. Any help is most appreciated - simply click below to securely send a contribution through a credit card and Paypal.

 

Originally published 4 Apr 2008, last update 15 Oct 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
Related Articles
Vacation Planning Strategies
Packing Tips part 1
Packing Tips part 2
Fire Safety Tips - Preparation and Planning
Fire Safety Tips - Responding to a Fire
 
 
 

 


Your Feedback

How Would You Rate this Article

Poor
Average
Good

Was the Article Length and Coverage

Too short/simplistic
About right 
Too long/complex

Would You Like More Articles on this Subject

No
Maybe
Yes

Back to Top