Do You Know What To Do When The Smoke Alarm Goes Off?

by April 12, 2013 04/12/13
Firefighter

You may have read Bryan’s latest article on smoke detectors and recently replaced yours, but do you have a plan for what to do when they go off? Smoke detectors may work in different ways, but their primary goal is to alert those nearby that something has changed in the air, be it gas, smoke or carbon dioxide.

It’s important to know the difference in the sound of your smoke detectors, due to the fact that it changes how a person needs to react to save themselves and their family.

What is Smoke?

SmokeDetectorThis may sound like a silly question, but it’s important that we all get on the same page. Smoke is the hot unburned gases that are visible to the naked eye. This is what sets off the alarm and can cause you to frantically fan the unit when you burn something on the stove. The problem isn’t necessarily the smoke, but the number of other undetectable elements that are released when a fire breaks out.

Smoke and most other bad gasses, will first rise in a fire and then bank back down off the ceiling. This is why being close to the floor is best. Because the smoke will rise, the air closest to the floor will be safer and you’ll have a greater chance to escape. Smoke inhalation is actually the leading cause of death in most home fires.

In addition to producing smoke, fire can incapacitate or kill by reducing oxygen levels, either by consuming the oxygen, or by displacing it with other gases. Heat is also a respiratory hazard, as superheated gases burn the respiratory tract. When the air is hot enough, one breath can kill.

Now that you know the true definition of what smoke is and how it acts, what should you do when you hear the smoke detector go off?

Smoke Fire Example

These photos are meant to illustrate that even though the fire lasted for only 15 minutes, there is a clear line where the smoke was and where it wasn’t throughout various parts of the home.

During the Night

If you’re sleeping and the alarm goes off, DO NOT SIT UP IN BED. Roll to the floor first, before getting your bearings and assessing the situation. The reason you wouldn’t want to sit up in bed, is that you could be lifting your head right into smoke and hot gases. Most people found dead in house fires are found in bed because they’ve sat up, inhaled a big dose of bad air and died.

Once you’re on the floor, where you go depends on the condition of the room you’re in. Is it really hot and full of smoke? If so, find the closest exit and get out. The term “exit” means any way possible of getting your body outside of the home as rapidly as possible. If your door is closed, remember to feel the doorknob with the back of your hand. If it’s warm or hot, find another way out.

Lets say it’s not just you in the home, but your family is there too. Again, focus on the conditions in the room you start off in. If they’re bad, get out now and work from the outside in to help your family. If conditions are clear, stay as low as possible and move to the rooms they’re in and then to the closest exit immediately.

Find Your Escape

Advocating the closest exit is due to the fact that people are creatures of habit. If the family always goes in and out of the front door then that’s where they’ll try and go, but this obviously isn’t always the best way. Whether the closest exit is through a bathroom window or down and out through the basement, keep an eye out for the best option.

The Fire Department looks at windows as doors and that they can be used to enter and exit a building in roughly the same manner. This being said, you may get cut trying to use a window, or break a bone jumping from a second story window, but cuts and breaks are much easier to fix then lungs exposed to hot gases or burns to the body.

In the event a family member is trapped inside and the rest of you are safely outside, this is the first thing that Firefighters need to know when showing up to the scene. Things to tell them would be the family member’s name, age, sex and what room they may possibly be in. This information can help reduce the search time to find loved ones.

Prepare for the Worst

EscapePlanHaving a solid escape plan can help with nearly every situation described above and even with the aftermath of recovering from a tragedy. Taking the time to sit down with your family and discuss what to do when the alarms go off, as well as primary and secondary exits, is a very import conversation to have.

Prompt your kids to get creative and draw out a map that they hang in their room. They’ll pass it everyday and hopefully see it from time to time. Quiz your family at dinner and ensure everyone is on the same page with what to do in the event of a fire.

Along with the basic items we use on a daily basis, such as a driver’s license, credit card/s, car keys and cell phone, there are also other items that will be especially important after a house fire. These include copies of your Homeowner’s/Renter’s Insurance Policy, Birth Certificates, titles or deeds, computer backups, spare clothing, etc.

These are all items that can be copied and/or stored somewhere other than your home so they’re available if needed.  If you store these items in a fire-proof safe, keep in mind that most safes are only designed to be in a heated environment for so long. When the Firefighters arrive, you can inform them of the safe location or items you need saved, which will help them help you.

Some simple items can be stored in a shed, neighbor’s house or with a family member that lives nearby. These would be things such as a change of clothes for everyone in the family (remember to keep sizes up to date), important phone numbers, backup ID, credit cards and any daily prescriptions that a family member requires.

Each family’s list will be different, as well as what and how much will be stored. In the short time it takes for a house to burn everything inside, a little prior planning can mean all the difference in starting over.

Editor-in-Chief’s Note:  Please join us in welcoming PJ Packard as a contributor on ITS Tactical. PJ is a Florida Firefighter, Paramedic and TSAR. He’s been involved in emergency services for over 10 years and loves hunting and the outdoors. We’re also proud to have him as a Life Member at ITS!


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Paul Hogan
Paul Hogan

From a fellow FF, fantastic article. I would add three things. 1. Keep a flashlight and EDC items (wallet, keys, knife, firearm, etc) on night stand or close by religiously. This can be of use in searching for family members, providing rapid shelter from outside elements, and ability to purchase items in case you loose everything. 2. Have a meeting place outside for all family members. Giving kids a stated goal to get to in an emergency might keep them more focus. 3. If a fire alarm goes off in a public place, be familiar with all potential exits, as people tend to retreat thru the entrance they came it. On a side not, they should be aware that alarms can be set off by those with evil intentions. Do not get tunnel vision, be aware of things not going right and the sound of explosions/gun fire. Be safe brother & keep up the great work!

Chris Sajnog
Chris Sajnog

Great article PJ! One of the many great things about my sons being in Cub Scouts is that we had to make a plan and practice as a family. I've never been told not to sit up in bed when the alarm goes off, but it makes sense. I'll just practice my roll out of bed, like I'm getting my gun!

Davis
Davis

PJ, this is a great article, very thorough and well put together. When I was a firefighter it was always an apparent theme that nobody ever plans on having a fire happen to them (or any other life altering occurrence for that matter). So the information you put together are excellent things for people to think about put into action.

Thanks for writing!

Davis
Davis

PJ, this is a great article, very thorough and well put together. When I was a firefighter it was always an apparent theme that nobody ever plans on having a fire happen to them (or any other life altering occurrence for that matter). So the information you put together are excellent things for people to think about put into action. Thanks for writing!

Ben A.
Ben A.

I was told that another usefull tip was to keep important papers (SSN cards, birth certificates, legal documents, etc.) in a waterproof bag and place them in your kitchen freezer. not only would they be more likely to survive a house fire, but it would be less likely to be subject for theft as well.

Strus
Strus

Great article, thanks!

Corey M. Williams
Corey M. Williams

My family and I just returned home after being displaced for three months by a house fire. We were very fortunate everyone was ok. It really made things easier having all of my son's T1D meds in a storage baskets, which we were able to grab and go. Everyone had a camping bag in their closet, which made it easy to stuff it with clothes and go. We keep our 3 day stuff in a detached garage, along with a duffel of camping stuff, its more or less an ad-hoc bug out bag.

In hind site, it would have been nice to each have a bug out bag at the ready. I definitely agree with Paul's advise on giving your family members specific tasks or goals. It really prevented my boys from panicing and instilled pride later when they talked about how they, "saved" their family. Don't underestimate having toys and games in your children's bag they will come in handy down the road.

Corey M. Williams
Corey M. Williams

My family and I just returned home after being displaced for three months by a house fire. We were very fortunate everyone was ok. It really made things easier having all of my son's T1D meds in a storage baskets, which we were able to grab and go. Everyone had a camping bag in their closet, which made it easy to stuff it with clothes and go. We keep our 3 day stuff in a detached garage, along with a duffel of camping stuff, its more or less an ad-hoc bug out bag. In hind site, it would have been nice to each have a bug out bag at the ready. I definitely agree with Paul's advise on giving your family members specific tasks or goals. It really prevented my boys from panicing and instilled pride later when they talked about how they, "saved" their family. Don't underestimate having toys and games in your children's bag they will come in handy down the road.

Mike Petrucci
Mike Petrucci

Thanks for sharing Corey. I'm glad to hear that things are looking better for you, that was no doubt a tough experience.

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