April 08, 2006

In Case of Fire

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.

24 comments:

Parton Words said...

After all that prep, it would almost be a pity if fire never struck

BeachMama said...

Good for you. We used to do drills when I was young, we don't do any now as "J" is too little to get out himself anyway and "A" knows how to get out. We will probobly start doing them when "J" is a bit older as Hubby is always aware that we need a special plan to get out. Thankfully all our windows go out onto a porch roof that we can easily get down from without a ladder (easily being, wouldn't want to do it every day, but in a pinch we would be good.).

I have always had a healthy fear for fire, since the "Walton's" had a fire on the show and a week later we had a fire in our chimney & roof. Good for you for being prepared

jo(e) said...

Beachmama: Oh, I am sure some dramatic fires on television have probably added to my fires. I remember one from Little House on the Prairie that was particularly awful.

Phantom Scribbler said...

We had to watch a movie on fire safety in first grade about a family who all died in a fire. At one point, a fireman is shown walking down the blackened hallway, accidentally kicking a toy clock that sadly played its little song. We had the same toy clock at home. I was so scared I had insomnia for months afterward. I asked my parents to get us a ladder for our bedrooms, but they never bothered. Of course. I would have felt so empowered by your fire drill routine.

It's one of the things I like about our small house -- the second story isn't that high and the bedrooms are all a few steps away from each other,

EmmaNadine said...

We had fire drills at home when I was little, but we also had earthquake drills, and emergency contact numbers for people who lived in other states in case all of Southern California was decimated.

Oh, and Jo(e), last night as my husband and I were out walking around the river, a boy, about 16 years old, dressed all in black, with an eight foot long piece of PVC pipe rode by on his bike. I immediately thought, "I wonder what Boy in Black is up to now?"

sp said...

Jo(e),

My dad was a volunteer fireman when I was a kid. We did LOTS of fire drills, so I know exactly what you are talking about. With all the awareness, I did have some nightmares about fires (a la Phantom's, only my dad was usually in them) - but we all knew what to do if one ever happened. That fact usually comforted me (and empowerd me, as Phantom suggested).

I bet your kids are totally prepared, now - even without the drills. My roommate is from LA and when we had a teensy earthquake two years ago she just snapped into action. In a nanosecond she was in a door frame and yelling at me to get under the table. Of course, there was no real need in this situation, but those actions were instinctual after her years of training (and experience).

2:17 is a pretty good time, too! Way to go!

medieval woman said...

Hi jo(e)! I just had to make a comment - I think this is fantastic. I echo Phantom's and sp's sentiments about it being empowering - both for you, your husband, and your children. I also applaud you for not just swallowing your fears, discounting them as statistically unlikely (b/c of other fire warning systems), or dealing with them "in secret" (like placing fire extinguishers secretly around the house - not that that's not a good thing to do!) But I think that sharing the dangers with your children and giving them the skills 1) to deal with an emergency situation if you get separated from them and 2) to teach them to work together (I love that each one has their own "task") is extremely great.

I hope you never ever need to really put this to the test - but I think you're already many steps ahead of the game. When the Dutchman and I have children, we're definitely taking a page out of your book!

kathy a said...

it is empowering. in 5th grade, i won an essay contest about fire safety. one night that year, i woke up at 3 a.m., noticed a car on fire across the street, and called 911. i was shaking so hard, it is amazing they could understand me. house fires really scare me, so we also did fire drills when my kids were smaller, but it is not such a big deal in a 1 story house.

we do earthquakes in my state -- my personal "big ones" were 1971 in LA, and 1989 near SF. i'll never forget a medium-large one in about 1983, when i was a baby lawyer in a deposition -- the windows rattled and room shook fairly harshly for a few million seconds, and every single person in the room dove under the sturdy conference table. it stopped, we all had a good laugh, and the stenographer noted a "break for earthquake" in the official record.

Terminaldegree said...

I have a pretty strong house-fire-phobia, too. Your way of dealing with it is fantastic!

Mieke said...

How my heart soars! I am not sure any of your readers will appreciate that story the way this Safety Pup does. You. You. I could reach through the computer and kiss you right now. It's hard to do with a 2 year old and 4 year old, but I attempt to do earthquake drills. Jonas gets it but Gabo just thinks it's silly we are all sitting under the kitchen table.

I LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE your firedrill story.

Writer Chica said...

When I lived with my parents, I planned how I would get out of the house cause I'm scared of fires, too. Your mention of the Little House on the Prairie fire seems to ring a bell with me. My MOMS club has organized tours of the fire station and had a fireman get dressed up in all of his gear. This way the kids won't be scared if they see one coming to rescue them.
I live in a house with 2 bedrooms on the main level and 2 bedrooms on the lower level. It makes me really nervous to think about when we will need to move a kid or two downstairs and have them so far away from us. I've jokingly mentioned to my husband that we should put in a trapdoor and spiral staircase!

Psycgirl said...

Jo(e) I don't usually comment on your blog, but I can't pass this one up. Good for you for being prepared. I was taught fire safety in elementary school but my parents never had me practice at home. They probably thought it would never happen (it didn't). In a true emergency, sometimes if you haven't rehearsed what to do and you don't have something instinctual to kick in, the adrenalin will overcome any decision making skills you usually have. Your kids are going to be prepared forever! Incidentally, somewhat related, I just read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and he cites advice that people should always practice dialing 911, because in an emergency a lot of people forget what to do - scary stuff!

peripateticpolarbear said...

We did tornado drills all the time when I was a kid. I believe in basements liek you believe in ladders.

kabbage said...

I live without other humans in the house, but I do worry about my animals. Only one story is above ground, and my heaviest is only 50 lbs so if I can get a hold of them, I can throw them out a window. One is tattooed and the other micro-chipped, so they are identifiable if they panic and run.

I need to put slip leads in my bedroom and by all the doors in the house so they can be restrained no matter how they exit the building. Thanks for the reminder.

kathy a said...

practice really does help. in the 1989 quake -- the one that struck just as the world series was beginning in oakland, the one that broke the SF bay bridge and collapsed a double-deck freeway -- my babies and i were not far from the epicenter, staying with my sister.

my sister hunkered in a doorway, as everything from one set of cabinets flew across the kitchen. i was on a sofa with my kids, and we stayed put because we were away from the windows and all heavy furniture. bookcases, a dresser, and the TV crashed over.

my daughter was an infant, and my son just 2 years old -- they knew something was seriously wrong, and just clung to me. my sister and i went into "earthquake mode" -- made sure we were in reasonably safe places, and calmly said, "it's ok, it's only an earthquake, it will be over soon."

and it was. we cleaned up, but we all camped together in the living room the next two nights, as the aftershocks came. once the gas was turned off, we used candles because the electricity was out. my son insisted on singing the happy birthday song, many times, because there were candles. and what the heck, we were celebrating being so lucky.

Queen of West Procrastination said...

Maybe I should enforce earthquake drills in my household. I'm very new to the West Coast and earthquakes are outside of my paradigm.

On the other hand, I grew up paranoid of fires and tornados (especially as a result of two memorable episodes of WKRP). As a child, I constantly ran over my plans for surviving either of those. Oddly, those plans only involved preserving my favourite toys, and not rescuing my family.

zelda1 said...

My fears were fires, water, and kidnapping. Yes, my children were 13 months apart and so in order to keep them near me I used a halter on one or the other, depending which felt needy and had to be carried that particular day. The other got the halter and leash. Yes, like a dog without the choke collar. Inside their windows, I put those totfinder things from the firedepartment and that scared me that I was letting perverts know that children were in the room, so I put loud traps around the window to make a noise if someone got in and I could wake up, which still didn't satisfy my fear, so I slept with my children, until they were 12 and 13, and the daughter slept with me until she was 15. I know that is too long, but I was so afraid. Then there was going across bridges. I carried all these things in the car and my children knew what do do if the bridge broke and we fell into the water. Life jackets, and hammers to break the windows, and get out of the car as quickly as they can, and go to the top and hold on to their life jacket and wait for help. Yes, wait for help. Now, I'm not as paranoid, but my grandsons sleep with me, well The Baby in his crib in my room, and The Seven Year Old with me and Granddad, and we have plans to get out in case of fire. I also make my SEven Year Old practice his help me scream. Really loud. The best thing to do about fears, have a plan, just like you've done. It helps.

Scrivener said...

Um, sorry if my off-hand post tapped into your fire fears. I think the kids are still too young for us to do too much of this sort of planning, but I suppose it's in our future.

jo(e) said...

Scrivener: Actually your post is what made me think of this. And With-a-Why was four when we were doing these fire drills, so I would say that your kids are not too young at all. He did fine climbing out windows and such.

Dafina Girl said...

Wow, you are my hero. I'm filing this strategy away for future family use.

susan said...

I have been terrified of fires since someone came to our house when I was pretty young to try to sell my parents some sort of smoke detector (so this was maybe the late '60s? very early '70s? I was young enough to not really remember much else around this). He showed us some kind of movie about a family being caught in a fire, and I'm sure that ultimately the point was to illustrate a safe escape but mostly it made me paranoid. We didn't have smoke alarms until much later, and my parents never got me the rope ladder I asked for, but I always figured i could climb out the tree outside the window. And here our master bedroom isn't that far off the ground and it's not a bad drop from the porch that slopes off our rooms--but I was just thinking yesterday that the new addition windows are higher up and we should probably think about that for CG's new room.

Psycho Kitty said...

Oh, the Fire Terror. What did it for me was the friggin' traveling salesman selling smoke detectors. Good: Our house got smoke detectors. Bad: I had to relive the demonstration over and over. Not a happy overimaginative child for a while there.
I need to do this with my kids--I am woefully lacking in the preparedness dept.

halloweenlover said...

I am also terrified of a fire, or of someone breaking in downstairs and me not being able to get to the other two bedrooms that are also across a landing (when I have children, I mean). Our current house is the first time we've lived in a two story, and I cannot tell you how excited I was when the previous owners gifted the metal ladder to us. I have often pondered how I would carry my two pups out in a fire. I figured I'd stuff them in a bag if I had to! What do you do with a baby, though? Maybe sleep with a sling by your head?

jo(e) said...

Halloween lover: Well, you could stuff a baby into a cotton pillowcase in an emergency. Or make a sling out a sheet and tie the baby to you.

Can you tell that I've actually lain awake at night thinking about this?