Autumn is here. It’s the season of wood fires and heaters. Candles glow in pumpkins, on Thanksgiving tables, and anywhere we want to banish the darkness. Soon we’ll be setting up dead conifers in our houses and draping them with electric lights.
What does this all have in common? Why, fire, of course! Lovely phenomenon. Keeps us warm, cooks our food, lights things up with pretty colors, destroys our houses, kills us. Quite the versatile exothermic reaction.
This is much in my mind, not only for seasonal reasons, but also because I’ve recently done a fire safety and evacuation course. It’s part of becoming a Bedrijfshulpverlener (Workplace First Responder). Leaving aside how much fun the training was, it also made me stop avoiding the question of what the members of my household would do in a fire.
So today was the First Annual Sutherland Fire Drill and Firefighting Extravaganza.
First of all, I planned out a decision tree for each of the bedrooms in the house, then had the person who slept there walk through it. It’s rather like a Choose Your Own Adventure story, albeit with the fire in control:
Note how most of the branches in the decision tree occurr at doorways. See, a door does two things in a fire. First of all, it masks what is on the other side. And second, it acts as a firebreak. Even the frailest hollow-core door can buy you precious seconds to get away.
So the key skill everyone acquired today was opening a door. You should learn it, too. Here’s what to do if you suspect there may be fire on the other side of a door:
Before you enter a space, check the door. When you leave a space, close the door behind you.
Martin and I didn’t try evacuating our room by the windows, but we ran the kids through the process of leaving through theirs. It wasn’t easy, since we all sleep one floor up (here’s a picture of the back of our house, where the children’s rooms are). One of the kids has a balcony, and can just climb over it and drop to the plastic storage chest beneath. But the other has to go out a window, across to the balcony railing, then hang and drop. Even with parental help, it’s a scary thing to do.
We’ve already discussed meeting points outside the house, and who stays put (children) versus who travels to find the family (adults).
Then we went into the backyard and learned about our household fire equipment.
We have three fire blankets in the house, one for each floor. Fire blankets are useful for smothering clothing fires and small, localized flames; they buy escape-and-call-the-fire-department time. We also have a foam fire extinguisher on the ground floor, suitable for type A (wood, paper, cloth, etc) and B (flammable liquids) fires. Because the foam is water-based, it is not suitable for grease fires. I’ve trained with a CO2 extinguisher and a fire blanket, but Martin had never used either.
I filled a bread loaf tin with kindling and used barbecue lighter fluid to set it on fire. We all practiced putting it out with a fire blanket: how to hold the blanket to protect our hands, using the blanket to protect our bodies while approaching the fire, and smothering the flames. Easy. I also demonstrated how to extinguish a fire with a newspaper, because although a fire blanket is useful, it is not the only way to remove oxygen from a fire.
The kids tried it too, though they know that they are not to try to fight fires themselves. (I would not have allowed less cautious or sensible children to try out the fire blankets, because a little learning can be a dangerous thing.)
Then I explained how to use a foam fire extinguisher on the re-ignited loaf pan. Martin tried it out with a second extinguisher bought for the purpose. It wasn’t as dramatic as my CO2 extinguisher training on the course, but it was useful nonetheless. Then we let the kids try squirting the rest of the foam out. (They are very clear on the idea that fire extinguishers are not toys and must not be let off without adult permission.)
We still have a few outstanding actions after today’s activities:
The chances that we will need to use anything we learned today are slight. But I’m glad we took the time to do it. Tonight, as a reward, we’re toasting marshmallows. Because rapid oxidation has its value in small doses, you know?
This post is for entertainment only. I am not a fire safety expert, and nothing in this post should be taken as definitive. Consult your local fire department for further information on fire safety, family fire drills, and the use of fire fighting equipment in the home.