Every year my children’s elementary school sends home information about fire safety. My boys eagerly tell me about the firefighters who come to the school, and each year my oldest son reminds us that we need a fire safety plan for our home. Each year, I agree.
Yet the only precautions we have taken for this emergency are a couple of fire extinguishers, smoke alarms and occasional lecturing to the children about getting out of the house as quickly as possible. We have had no fire drill practice, no specific organization as to what we should do after we get out of the house, and in particular, a glaring problem we hadn’t yet addressed: no easy exit out of a second-story window.
For help with this issue, I got some answers from Arkansas firefighters. Eric Smith serves as the assistant fire chief at the Hickory Creek Volunteer Fire Department in Benton County. He is also the assistant fire marshal for all of Benton County. He suggested using a fire escape ladder in the event that we couldn’t get down the stairway in an emergency, and included it as a crucial tool for the fire safety plan in our two-story house.
Purchasing a Fire Safety Ladder
Smith says the most important thing when looking for a safety ladder is to make sure it’s long enough. This sounds simple, but ladders come in different lengths, and the height from the window to the ground isn’t the same for all houses, an assumption people tend to make. Measure the distance and make sure the ladder will reach from the windowsill to the ground. Fire escape ladders can be found at hardware and home improvement stores, large retail stores and online. Purchase a safety ladder for each upstairs bedroom in the house.
Practicing With a Ladder in a Two-Story House
The second most important thing is to practice, practice, practice with a fire escape ladder. Practice following the instructions on hooking the ladder over the windowsill and letting it unravel. Practice going down it. And then practice again. Allow older children to practice with the ladder on their own and make sure they know how to handle it. Smith recommends doing a drill with a fire escape ladder at least twice a year: the same time you change your clocks and make sure those smoke alarms are in working condition.
My family’s first time descending a fire ladder was indeed an adventure. Unlike regular ladders, fire escape ladders move back and forth and offer the user a general feeling of instability, and that’s after the unnatural feeling of climbing out a high window.
For good measure, my husband and I went first. When it was our children’s turn, one of us went back up to the bedroom and stayed at the window, while the other waited at the bottom of the ladder. My children (ages 10, 7 and 5) all practiced going down, albeit with much resistance and more than a little hollering.
A few tips from our experience:
- We found that a little competition between brothers worked to our advantage. Our oldest boys went down more than once, each trying to one up the other.
- Heed the warning on safety ladders about any window below the one you’re escaping. Dropping down a ladder can damage lower windows, break glass and create a safety issue. This isn’t the main concern during a fire, but certainly is a consideration when practicing. Make sure lower windows are protected.
- Allow plenty of time, and consider several practices within a short period of time so children and adults get the feel of the ladder before stretching your drills to twice a year.
- Fire safety ladders should only be used when the main stairway isn’t passable in an emergency.
After the Fire Escape
We hear a lot about getting out of a house in case of a fire, but what comes after that is important for the first responders who arrive on the scene. Richard Blaschke, deputy chief at the Hickory Creek Fire Department, talked with me about procedures families should include in a fire safety plan.
1. Designate a meeting place and include going there as part of your drill. The meeting place needs to be significantly away from the house. Firefighters tend to prefer a standing mailbox across the yard. Children need to go to the meeting place and stay put, regardless of whether or not the rest of the family is with them.
2. Prepare children for the way firefighters look when they’re dressed in gear. A firefighter preparing to fight flames looks scary in the helmet and mask, especially to young children. When you practice your drill with the family, show children images of firefighters in their gear (easily found on the Internet).
3. Review with young children how many people are in the family. Blaschke says that when firefighters arrive on a scene, they are immediately concerned with who may still be in the house.
– 21 civilian home fire fatalities were reported in Arkansas in 2020.
– According to the National Fire Protection Association, there were an average of 353,100 home structure fires in the United States between 2014-2018.