Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Some important points to survive a fire in a building.

Six years ago I never had reason to give the dangers of a fire a second thought. Fires were something I read about in the newspapers. But then horror struck and my youngest daughter Ellinor got caught in a fire at the 6th floor of an apartment building in Paris.

She woke up when her little studio already was filled with thick, black smoke and tried to get out. In her panic and fear she did everything wrong. She opened the door and tried to get down the stairs through the smoke. On the way she inhaled carbonmonoxide- and cyanide gases and managed only to get to the 3rd floor. It was pitch dark and five a clock in the morning. – When the firemen found her, her heart had stopped beating. She got reanimated, but her life was already ruined by irrevocable brain damages.

I will use Ellinor’s example to give you some clues about how to survive a fire in a house. Ellinor is for me the brutal example that fire and horror can pay a visit to any one of us, at any time.

The smoke and the gases

Most of the causalities in fires are caused by the smoke and by the gases. Ellinor would have been with us today if she had had a smoke detector in her studio. A very simple device, that rings loudly if it senses smoke. The smoke detector also buys you time to reflect on what to do next, which is a very imortant factor. Your most dangerous enemy is panic, then you do everything wrong. Fifteen seconds of reflection can save your life.
The smoke contains very dangerous gases: carbonmonoxide and in the worst case, cyanidgas. The cyanid comes from burning plastic and it destroys your brain cells immediatly.
The smoke that emanates from a fire or from a glow elevates to the ceiling until the room is full, seeps under doors and travels in corridors. The smoke reduces the visibility to zero and creates total darkness. Even experienced firemen can loose their way.
The most dangerous moment comes when the smoke gases meet the fire, then they can explode with a terrible force.

Contain the fire

A fire must be contained, from inside or from outside a room. If you are in a room with a fire outside, it is better to stay inside and wait. Maybe you need to open the window to air out the smoke. Put wet towels by the door.
Ellinor opened the door and rushed into the fire. She had a big window two meters from her bed, which she could have opened. If she hade stayed, she would have been saved by the firemen.
If you see a fire in a room, close the door and windows. It is amazing how long a door can withstand a fire.
Oxygen feeds the fire. Lack of oxygen makes the fire die out.


People in panic tend to flee the way they came in, especially in public spaces. They flee from a danger, to what they percieve to be a safe place. Children often hide under a table or in a closet, where they sense a safe haven, while firemen search for them.
In many hotels and apartment buildings there are specially concieved fire exits and fire stairs. People tend to avoid, out of fear, these narrow and dark passages. However fire exits may also be locked or blocked. In a big fire in a discoteque in Gothenburg in Sweden, all fire exits were blocked, which caused many deaths by smoke inhalations.
Another danger is the false sense of collective safety. In panic you loose your rational thinking and do what the others do. One horrible example occured during a fire in the London underground. Panic stricken people continued to go up towards the smoke and fire in the escalators, despite efforts by the personel to stop them. On the upper floor they found a certain death.

Preventive action

The most important thing is to be aware that a fire can occur in any place at any moment. Therefore it is necessary to try to create an unconscious pattern of behaviour when you enter public places, hotels, discoteques or an unknown house.
Smokedetectors? Fire extinguishers?. Where can I get out quickly? Check the fire exits!
Trust your senses and, most important, trust your nose. If you sense smoke – get out quickly.
If you are surprised by the smoke, lie down , breathe, calm down and think – what shall I do next? Those reflective seconds can save your life.
If you can – exstinguish the fire and close it in or out. Warn other people or wake them up. All the neighbours of Ellinor managed to get up on the roof, nobody bothered to wake her up.

All these points and conclusions are the result of seminars arranged by the Swedish Board of Fire Protection and insurance companies through my initiative. Firemen, fire engineers, psychologists, communication specialists and ordinary people discussed how a fire works and how people react to it.
I hope that you, the reader of this paper, will remember some of these very imporant points. They might, one day, save your life or someone else’s.

Photo by courtesy of free.photo.com and Svenska Brandförsvarsföreningen
Written by Erik Edelstam