Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Fire Safety and Young Children

I’ll be honest, any time I hear about a house fire, especially if there are fatalities, I worry about what we’d do if a fire started in our home. I always think that I know all the fire safety recommendations, but don’t know exactly how to apply the “rules” to my family and my home.

I’ve heard conflicting advice from other parents. I’ve heard the general home escape plans. Some of the advice simply doesn’t work if you have young children and infants.

So, as I’m awaiting the birth of my third child, I thought I’d go to someone who could actually give me practical advice about fire safety. He’s a firefighter and a dad, and he happens to be someone I went to high school with so he was obligated to help. Just kidding. He’d help anyone.

I asked Chad Rathbun, who is a firefighter in Minneapolis at Fire Station number one, a series of questions that I had about keeping my kids safe regarding fires.

Most people probably know that they should have a working smoke detector in their homes, but how many smoke detectors do we really need? In my home, we have one in each of our children’s bedrooms and one in the kitchen. Chad recommends that we place one in every bedroom (not just our kids’!), in the kitchen (where most fires start), one on each level of the home, and one in the hallway outside your bedrooms. Keep in mind that if anyone is sleeping in your basement you need to have egress windows for safety.

Similarly, we should all have at least one fire extinguisher in our home. Since most fires start in the kitchen, that might be the best place to keep it if you have only one. But it isn’t enough to just buy the fire extinguisher and leave it sitting in your kitchen for years (hopefully) unused. You need to perform some maintenance even on the small home fire extinguishers. If fire extinguishers sit unused in one position for years, the chemicals inside can lump together and become useless. To prevent this, we should actually spin our fire extinguishers. Hey, we could even have our kids do it for us. Just turn the extinguisher on its side and spin it or roll it around a little. Once a month, even once every six months (perhaps when we’re changing the batteries in our smoke detectors) should keep our extinguishers clump-free.

When we were in grade school we were taught to have a fire escape plan. These plans, while a great idea for families with older children, are not practical for those with young children. I asked Chad what I could have taught my kids to do when they were too little to open doors and get themselves out of the house.

Here’s what Chad said: Tell them to stay low to the ground and stay where they are. Do NOT hide…don’t go under the bed, or into their closet or anywhere else they might think to go. Introduce them to firefighters and let them see them dressed in their full gear. Let them know that the firefighters are there to help. Take them to a fire station. See if they can try out the stuff. If it’s familiar, they’ll be less scared when they need to rely on a firefighter to save them.

“Just telling them not to hide, that’s a big thing. When there’s smoke in the house you can’t see your hand in front of your face and if the kids are hiding it’s near impossible to find them. It can be pretty chaotic.”

“It’s pretty scary with all of our stuff on, but if they’ve seen it before they might be less scared. We have had kids run away from us before because they’re scared of these people coming in looking like monsters and carrying axes and stuff,” Chad explains.

You can still construct an escape plan and talk with your child about it, and practice it. But know that your child will be at least as scared as you are in a fire, so the best thing to tell them might be Chad’s advice: “If you’re scared, just stay where you are and we’ll come and get you.”

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