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Community Focus
by Tom Kiurski

Teach civilians to survive fire

Practicing an escape plan is critical to their survival, convincing them of this is a much greater challenge

By Tom Kiurski

I recently finished reading the book "Deep Survival" by Laurence Gonzales. In one part of the book he talks about how some people like to live on the edge and seek out thrills. Others are happy with little excitement and deviation in their lives.

Gonzales suggests that those who seek extreme stress learn to excel and think ahead when in dangerous situations, while those with little training and experience with that level of stress are more likely to give up and fail. Some people busy themselves with depression and anger, while others are busy surviving — planning for their next correct action.

It was a very good book; it got me thinking about survival in the event of an unwanted fire.

Memory matters
Most people can live a long life and never experience an extreme unwanted fire situation. And it would not be looked upon with favor by my fire chief if I were to put random civilians in that situation.

Without experience or training, people default to those things that left memory markers in their brains from a situation that is similar to the one they are currently facing. If your residents' experience base does not go beyond movies and television shows, they need to do a little research and practice how you would handle a fire in their home — the most likely place that they will face an unwanted fire.

Research shows that people remember very little of what they hear, but much more of what they see and do. Therefore, your goal should be to get your residents to practice their home fire escape plan several times with their families. 

Teach civilians to escape a burning house using a hands-and-knees crawl (it takes too much time to crawl on your belly). Firefighters take this knowledge for granted. But many civilians do not understand that this will keep them out of the heat and smoke layers forming at the top of the room and gives them more time to escape. 

If your population understands this, great. But they may not remember it when the situation is dangerous. Will they take the time to practice this from several points in their home with their families? If so, they have a higher chance of recalling this when disaster strikes.

Target audience
A great audience to start with is children, and great places to find them are schools and preschools. They will practice this behavior all day long if you let them, so inform them when to do this behavior and have them practice it. 

It is harder to get the adults involved. I like to tell the children to become the leaders of their home escape drill after dinner. I tell them that they need to get their families together and practice the behaviors — like stop, drop and roll and crawl low under smoke— and test the smoke alarms. 

One evening, I received a phone call from a friend who told me he had just finished the drill; his was one of the kids I spoke to that day. It can work.

All visits that your fire company makes should include handout material. You don't need expensive items to hand out, but a simple page, pamphlet or booklet outlining the steps you want them to take at home is important as a memory aid and guide.

Another approach is to make a Public Service Announcement about any one piece of the fire-safety picture. Your local cable television carrier is a great place to start. I have found that they will do all of the taping, editing and graphics work; I just have to supply the message and a face to do the talking.

The nice thing about PSAs is that they work into the regular programming schedule for your cable company, and reside permanently on your fire department homepage. Check ours out at www.ci.livonia.mi.us.

Why it matters
In most homes a door or window is but a few steps away from just about any point. Yet, most of the 3,500 who die each year in the United States from fire die in their homes. 

Don't they know where the windows and doors are? Of course they do. 

Did they put their escape plan into the context of actions to take when fire strikes? Statistics tell us probably not. 

Most adults say they have a home fire escape plan, but less than one-third of them say they have practiced it. That isn't a plan at all.

Encourage your population to make a home escape plan and practice it several times from different places in their homes. This can be fun. And, have them talk it over afterwards with a treat for everyone. This can help drive home the important points.
 

About the author

Tom Kiurski has been in the fire service since 1981. He is the Training Coordinator and Director of Fire Safety Education for Livonia, Mich., Fire & Rescue. He has served as a firefighter/paramedic, engineer and lieutenant prior to his appointment as the training coordinator. He has earned an Associates Degree in Fire Science from Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, Mich., a Bachelors Degree in Fire and Safety Engineering Technology from the University of Cincinnati and a Masters Degree in Public Administration from Eastern Michigan University. Tom teaches fire service-related courses at local colleges and fire academies. He has presented at the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) in Indianapolis seven times, as well as numerous state and local conferences. He has written more than 300 articles on fire safety education and training that have appeared in various fire service publications. Contact Tom at Tom.Kiurski@firerescue1.com.



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