Every parent has particular fears when it comes to what might harm their children. My husband, because he learned to swim as an adult, used to have nightmares in which one of the children was drowning. I have no fear of water at all – although I admit it was a relief when my kids are learned to swim. My nightmares usually have to do with fire. When my kids were little, a reporter friend did an investigative piece on a fire in Camera City in which four children died, and the parents both survived. That story haunted me for years. I cannot imagine being on the outside of a burning building, knowing that my children were inside.
When my kids were very young, we lived in a small house with two first floor bedrooms. I knew that getting the kids out in a fire would be pretty easy. Seven years ago, when we moved to our current house, a colonial in which the bedrooms are upstairs, my fear of fire returned. Even smoke detectors in every room did not make me feel completely safe. The bedroom I share with my husband is on the north side of the house, and the kids sleep on the south. If the house were on fire, I figured that the flames would come roaring up the center staircase, separating me from my children, who at the time were still pretty young.
My way of facing my fears is to look at the worst case scenario and deal with it. When I saw a metal chain ladder at a garage sale, I knew I had found my solution. I would train my children to rescue themselves if the worst ever happened and the house caught on fire one night while we were all sleeping.
So one week that summer I began doing fire drills with the kids, including of course, the extra kids who sleep at my house. They would all lie down and pretend they were sleeping, and then I would press the smoke detector button. Then I would yell to indicate the situation: “Fire coming up the stairs! Smoke! Flames! You cannot use the hallway!” I’d change the situation, moving the fire to different parts of the house, just for variety.
The kids learned how to pull the ladder out from under the bed, kick out the window screen, and attach the ladder. Their plan was systematic. My daughter, the oldest, would be the first down the ladder. She learned how to climb down the ladder when the bottom part was loose and dangling. Once at the bottom, she could hold it steady, which made it easy for even the youngest kids to climb down. Boy-in-Black stayed at the top of the ladder: the rule was that he would not come down until all the other kids had been safely sent down.
“You realize that this means you are the most likely to die in a fire,” I told him. He nodded his eleven-year-old head seriously.
Shaggy Hair Boy, who was about eight at the time, was to run to a neighbor’s house and ask them to call the fire department. And we arranged a meeting place out near the road.
Once the kids got past the awkwardness of climbing out a window onto a shaky metal ladder, the fire drills started to be fun. We made up some rules as we went along, trying to think of every possible situation. Boy-in-Black is such a sound sleeper that we decided that a smoke alarm would never wake him up. Shaggy Hair was assigned to shake him and wake him up. We practiced with other scenarios – what if With-a-Why had gone in with Mom and Dad during the night? When my daughter got to the ground, she was to check for him on the garage roof, and then yell up to Boy in Black that he was accounted for.
We started timing the fire drills – beginning the moment I pressed the fire alarm button and not ending until all the children had safely gathered in the meeting spot. I kept thinking of different situations and offering new challenges. We found we could do the whole drill in under three minutes, which was pretty impressive when you consider that this included the time it took to set up the ladder. The whole game started to be really fun, as we sliced more and more seconds off the time.
Then at some point in the afternoon, I paused to watch what was happening. Some kind of competitive streak runs in the family, and we were desperate to keep beating our record. I watched my kids flinging themselves out of upper story windows as fast as they could, running to make it to the meeting place. At that point it occurred to me that the danger of one of the kids getting hurt during a fire drill was far greater than the chance of my house ever even catching on fire.
So we ended the fire drills. But I felt confident that the kids had learned important skills and would not be helpless if a fire ever happened. And our record? Two minutes and seventeen seconds. Something we still brag about.