When you hear the phrase “fire escape”, you may think of the metal platforms and stairs mounted alongside multi-story apartment buildings. While that is a commonly-used term, there's a lot more to escaping a fire than simply climbing out a window and using the stairs. Unless you enjoy the thought of standing on the street in your pajamas while watching everything you own burn to a crisp, it's essential to plan ahead and prepare for a fire in your home.

Survival Scenarios boots fire escape

This may be called a “fire escape”, but it should NOT be the extent of your plan for escaping a blaze.

As we've mentioned in our previous article on fire prevention, fire poses a serious threat to both your safety and your property. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, a total of 379,500 residential buildings were affected by fire in 2014. This led to thousands of deaths, billions of dollars in damages, and untold loss of pets, priceless family items, and other sentimental valuables.

The Unprepared Course of Action

To help this sink in, let's imagine a hypothetical scenario:

It's a few days before Christmas, and you've been sitting on the couch watching Die Hard (a Christmas tradition) and enjoying some beers after a long day at work. Your kids are in bed already, and your wife just headed upstairs half an hour ago. You wanted to finish the movie and your drink, but your eyes are getting heavy. You flip off the TV and go to bed, forgetting to extinguish a candle in the hallway on your way up.

Candles are one of the most common sources of residential fires.

Candles are one of the most common sources of residential fires.

Not long after closing your eyes and drifting off to sleep, you're awoken by the piercing sound of a smoke alarm. Sitting bolt upright in bed, you notice a thick haze of smoke in the air, and fight the urge to cough as you shake your wife awake. You run to grab the kids, and rush downstairs. Choking smoke is everywhere, and you can hear the crackling of flames. You head for the front door, but the wall is already burning, as well as the table that once held the candle. Stumbling through the kitchen with your wife and kids, you're able to make it out onto the patio, smoke billowing from the door frame above your head.

You hadn't thought to grab your cell phone in the rush, so you pound on a neighbor's door and ask them to call 911. Minutes tick by, and your home continues to burn as firefighters roll up. The trucks douse the blaze, but by the time it's extinguished, over half your house is destroyed by fire. The other half is soaked in water. Your stomach sinks as you realize you've lost everything you own.

Formulating a Fire Escape Plan

Fire escape plan 3

It's hard to imagine everything you own vanishing overnight, especially if you've been preparing a bug-in plan for other sorts of emergencies. All your stockpiled food, water, medical supplies, weapons, and other belongings could be gone in a heartbeat. And more often than not, staying put and trying to “ride it out” is not an option. You'll need to assess the situation, protect what you can, grab a few key items, and be out the door in seconds. Any other choice could spell death.

The above scenario may be imaginary for us, but it affects hundreds of thousands of Americans each year. Just as you shouldn't rely wholly on paramedics to keep you healthy and safe, you shouldn't rely completely on firefighters to save your home from a fire. Even the best firefighters in the world can't stop a fire before it starts.

So, how should you plan for a home structure fire? There are three topics to consider: prevention, preparation, and escape.


Fire escape plan 1

First of all, we'd encourage you to read our recent article, Fire Prevention: Top 10 Residential Fire Sources. It outlines the most common causes of residential fires, and how to avoid each source of danger. This information can help you rethink how you use potential fire sources in your home—extinguishing candles cautiously, keeping heaters far from other flammable objects, and so on.

Much of your time should be spent on fire prevention, since a fire can't burn down your home if it's never ignited in the first place. However, it's still important to plan ahead for unavoidable scenarios, because it's impossible to have a 100% foolproof fire prevention plan.


Fire escape plan 7

In the event that your preventative measures have failed, you need to be prepared in order to stay safe. Prepping for a residential fire should include the following measures:

  • Install smoke alarms in every part of the home. Ideally, you'll want interconnected alarms, so that if one alarm goes off, all alarms sound at the same time. This ensures a fire won't have time to spread out of control before you're alerted.
  • Make sure you have fire extinguishers in place, and properly maintained. Extinguishers should be inspected at least once a year, and recharged or replaced if necessary. If you have a small fire to put out, you don't want to be stuck with a useless extinguisher.
  • Ensure all doors and windows can be opened easily. If your home has security bars on the windows, make sure they include emergency-release latches on the inside, so you can detach the bars if necessary.
  • Check that your home's street number is clearly visible from the road, so firefighters can find you quickly. Consider repainting curbs or adding stick-on numbers to your mailbox if necessary.
  • Follow these guidelines from the U.S. Fire Administration:


This point ties in with the preparation stage, but focuses more on what to do if you know there's a fire in your home, and it has already grown out of control. In that case, you'll need to get out as quickly as possible.

Fire escape plan 5

The USFA and FEMA recommend creating and practicing a home fire escape plan.

Here are the basic steps for a fire escape plan:

  1. Draw a map or blueprint of each level of your home, including all doors and windows. Also mark the location of each fire extinguisher and smoke alarm on this map.
  2. Ensure that there are at least two viable escape routes from each room. For second-floor windows, collapsible fire escape ladders (like this one) should be stored inside each room, and all residents should be trained on how to use them.
    Fire escape plan 6
  3. Discuss the possible escape routes from each room with all members of your family. Make sure that kids understand how to escape on their own, in case you can't get to them.
  4. Practice the fire drill repeatedly. First, try it during the day to get the basics down. Then, try planning a nighttime fire drill with your family, to check that everyone wakes up from the alarm and can escape the home in the dark.
  5. Check that everyone understands to crawl outside if there is smoke present. Smoke inhalation is one of the biggest dangers in a residential fire.
  6. Place bug-out bags along this escape route, and include essential or irreplaceable items inside each bag. These bags can be used in the event of any emergency, not just a fire.
  7. Once you're outside, stay outside! Don't re-enter the home for any reason if there is a fire inside—wait for the fire department to clear the home, if necessary. Re-entering the home to rescue another family member or pet could easily result in more loss of life.

With these simple steps of prevention, preparation, and escape, you can be ready in case a fire affects your home. Adequate preparation can help you and your family survive the unthinkable. Even if you can't save your home, escaping safely with a stocked bug-out bag sure beats shivering on the curb in your pajamas.

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