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
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
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
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
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)?
you don't know the complete extent of the fire, assume the worst
(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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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!
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.
: 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.
: 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
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.
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4 Apr 2008, last update
28 May 2011
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.