Even if it may seem far-fetched for the average Joe taxpayer, getting caught in a burning building is a relatively common occurrence in modern-day America, hence acquiring the skills and/or the intel on how to survive such an unpleasant scenario should rank high on any respectable prepper’s bucket-list.
To begin with, let me throw a bunch of statistics at you, to make you understand that today’s topic is as serious as it gets.
For example, fires cause more than 7 billion dollars in damage each year in the United States, as fire departments respond to more than 300,000 home fires. Again, each and every year. To put things into a grimmer perspective, 2600+ Americans die each year from fires, and more than 13,000 are injured. Now, if you don’t want to become part of that statistic at some point in the future (God forbids!), keep reading.
There’s an old saying around old-school firemen: if you want to escape a fire, you must think like the fire. I think I’ve heard this line in a movie about firemen starring Kurt Russel, but let that go. The idea is, one of the crucial things to determine if caught in a burning building, whether it’s your home, a hotel or an office building, is how fire spreads. You must understand what it is required from a fire to grow and spread through a building, so you can concoct a realistic escape plan.
3 Second SEAL Test Will Tell You If You’ll Survive A SHTF Situation
The basics of fire starting, which are very familiar to survivalists, also apply in our case: for a fire to start, grow and spread inside a building, it requires 3 elements:
- A source to provide the initial “spark”, which is basically a heat source
- Oxygen (the more, the better)
- A fuel source, i.e. any type of material that burns.
The primary source of home fires is, to no one’s surprise, cooking. This may be the reason people prefer to eat out, right? However, the primary culprit for fire related deaths is represented by dropped cigarettes. As an interesting factoid, most accidental fires that cause huge property damage and casualties are started by men, and we’re talking 64% of the fires.
Once the first spark which causes ignition takes place, the fire will try to spread for as much and as long as possible, as long as there’s enough fuel and oxygen. Keep in mind that fire tends to spread into cooler areas, and the heat spreads very rapidly.
For example, a house fire will literally cook your goose in under 4 minutes, as it’s capable of raising the interior temperature to 1100+ degrees Fahrenheit. Shortly after that, the air inside a room will get so hot, that basically any flammable material will spontaneously combust. This phenomenon is called flashover and it occurs even in the absence of actual (as in open) flames. Why am I boring you with such sadistic details? Well, you must understand perfectly that if caught in a burning building, you’ll have a tiny window of opportunity to escape, and we’re talking about 3 minutes, give or take.
With all these in mind, always remember the old boy-scouts’ motto: always be prepared! The question is, how? Well, that’s why you are here.
The first lesson to be taken home is this: people and fires are competing for the same crucial resource: oxygen. A lack of oxygen will make you sleepy and dumb, hence fire has an obvious advantage over humans in this competition.
Here’s from FEMA’s fire safety manual about the effects of an oxygen depleted environment:
- 21% Oxygen Level— Normal atmospheric level.
- 19.5% Oxygen Level — Minimum healthful level.
- 15-19% Oxygen Level — Decreased stamina and coordination.
- 12-14% Oxygen Level — Breathing rate increases with exertion, increase in heart rate, impaired coordination, perception, and judgment.
- 10-12% Oxygen Level — Breathing further increases in rate and depth, lips turn blue. Poor judgment.
- 8-10% Oxygen Level — Mental failure, fainting, unconsciousness, nausea, and vomiting.
- 6-8% Oxygen Level — Fatal after 6 to 8 minutes.
- 4-6% Oxygen Level — Coma in 40 seconds, convulsions, respiration ceases, and death occurs.
In order to survive getting caught in a burning building, you must understand how dangerous the lack of oxygen is for the human mind and body. And on top of that, a lack of oxygen is not the only problem. As the fire expands, plumes of toxic smoke will wreak havoc on your eyes and lungs, not to mention gases like carbon monoxide which causes mental impairment even in small amounts. As a matter of fact, smoke inhalation kills more people than actual flames do.
What You Can Do to Stay Alive
The first thing to consider in any SHTF scenario is situational awareness. In our case, you must be aware of your exact location in relation to fire escapes, whether you’re at home or in an office building, in a hotel or wherever. Public buildings are required by law to post evacuation maps, so check them out every time you go out. If they don’t seem to make much sense, try to do a little recon yourself by exploring (walking the floors) the layout of the building, looking for a possible escape route in case SHTF. The name of the game when caught in a burning building is to get out of there as soon as possible. You should also be capable of pinpointing your exact location in a given building to rescuers or 911 dispatchers, the likes of floor/room number, but you must be very specific in case you get trapped.
Another thing to consider is that even with small office fires, many may die due to toxic gases and smoke produced during combustion, especially in poorly ventilated spaces, which tend to trap the smoke inside. Hence, you should always know where the hose lines/fire extinguishers are in relation to your location, so you can put out small fires very quick, or if you’ll have to fight your way to the nearest exit through flames.
Heat, flames and smoke will always tend to rise first, and even if it’s only a matter of time until toxic gases and smoke will envelop the whole room, try to stay as low as possible as you’re trying to escape the hot areas. Additionally, you can use a damp piece of cloth (your t-shirt for example) to cover your mouth and nose, thus reducing the amount of smoke and toxic gases produced by the fire. This simple trick will also reduce the temperature of the air you inhale, thus helping with preventing irritation, inflammation and even burning of airways, hence minimizing the damage caused by smoke inhalation.
During your escape, always do a quick check of the doors before opening. In this way, you’ll make sure you’re not opening a door that contains a fire on the other side. Basically, you must check out if the door or its handles are hot when touched. If you open the wrong door, you’ll cause the fire to spread out quickly and to expand out of control due to an infusion of oxygen between rooms. If any points on a given door feel warm, proceed to an alternate exit, your secondary option so to speak. If there aren’t any, look for a window, and yes, you may have to break it to escape, and even jump a floor (or worse).
Always remember: the name of the game is to get out as soon as possible; don’t stop to grab any precious belongings, not even to call the fire department. You can do it after you get out of there! As soon as you see flames or smell smoke, you must enter in “flight mode” and get the hell out of there.
During a fire it is not advised to use elevators, as they may malfunction and trap you inside. All buildings are required by law to have separate exits, besides elevators that is, which means stairs. If you are trapped in your room and you can’t get out, try to keep out the smoke by placing wet clothing, blankets or towels, under the door/ventilation shafts to keep the smoke out. If your clothes catch fire, remember the old drill: stop, drop and roll to smother the flames, while covering your face and mouth with your hands to protect them. Always learn your building evac-plans, especially if you live/work in a high rise building, I cannot emphasize this too much; if you can get out, do it as quick as possible, as the stakes are high.
Speaking of fire extinguishers, many people die in fires because they don’t know how to use them, or they try to fight the fire themselves.
Here’s FEMA again on whether you should use a fire extinguisher:
- You are trained in how to use the extinguisher.
- You can put out the fire in five seconds or less.
- The fire is small and contained — like in a wastebasket.
- There is no flammable debris or hazardous material nearby.
Alex | May 13, 2018
Fire requires 3 things. Fuel, Oxygen and Heat. If you remove just one of those elements the fire will extinguish. Water puts out fires by removing heat. Water is not effective on cooking oil, gas, electrical or metal (magnesium etc.) fires. A correct (type B, C, or D, fire extinguisher is required. The most important thing to do this summer is clear at least a 20 ft area of combustible material around your home. Be fire safe.
Russell A Palmer | May 13, 2018
If you do get trapped in a room with not much way out, get into the shower and turn it on.
Kfilly | May 13, 2018
Good luck with that approach. It will not protect you from toxic smoke which kills people well before any flames get you. How about this idea proven by a scientific performed by NIST and the New York Fire Department. Keep your door closed if in a room. At that point, you can open a window, climb out or signal to others (fire department) you need help. Even a simple, hollow core door will protect you from heat and smoke for quite a few minutes (20-30). I work as a firefighter. I think my advice is a little more sound.
Theron Remington | May 13, 2018
I have to agree with Kfily. In the MGM Grand hotel fire, 81 of 82 fatalities died due to toxic/ corrosive gas inhalation. The 82nd jumped to his death. Retired firefighter.
Masterblaster | November 15, 2019
You’re a retired fire fighter? Or the retired fire fighter is the one who jumped?
MarkF | February 18, 2019
had read that during the grenfell tower fire, a family had survived by stopping all the drains, then turning on all the sinks, shower, etc to flood their apartment.
of course, it does help that they finally got rescued by the fire brigade. at least seventy people were not as lucky.
Bill in Idaho | May 14, 2018
Hey, Chris – You cannot pick a more Vital Topic than the one you just picked ! Thank You. Two Items I consider Essential – in a residence or a S/M office building on 1st or 2nd floor: . . . . . 1.) ALWAYS move toward an Outside Wall with windows or doors -and- 2.) Keep LOW – even to crawling on your belly – fewer gases and smoke, more oxygen, cooler temps., and easier to navigate directions in the confusion. OH, Also, Practice, Practice, Practice the procedures !
Mike Anderson | May 14, 2018
If you’re in the UK then the Fire Brigade will probably reach you within ten minutes – you could call them (not on 999) to check. Most UK doors will last 20+ minutes before letting a fire in. So if you do find yourself trapped more than one floor up, then you should call the fire brigade before risking your life with a window exit. Dial 999, put any material at the base of the door and piss on it. Wait by your window and don’t open it until you need to. Don’t attempt to climb out until you have to.
William Glass | November 12, 2018
On the use of a fire extinguisher. Aways aim at the source of the flames NOT the flames themselves. Be aware of “flashback” (when the force of the extinguisher scatters the source material of the fire).
SkiptheBS | November 12, 2018
This is the reason I keep the bug out bag under the bedroom window, along with a fire ladder and extinguisher. If the fire is too big for an extinguisher, it takes less time to bust the window out with the extinguisher than it would to open the window. The car is parked directly under the window.
This also is an excellent case for tight weatherstripping around interior doors.
Knowing the best unimpeded way away from the fire is vital. Many of us do not have GPS or want it. Know your back roads and short cuts.
Clergylady | November 12, 2018
Timely article. Get ot or get help.
Had a house fire back in the 70s. Got out. Bucket brigade style the entire family fought and extinguished the fire saving most of the repairable home. Finally after it was out forestry arrive. So actually it was pretty quick. No one was inside to fight it. We smothered the attic fire with thrown buckets of water thrown through the end vent. The door we’d escaped through was open to the room on fire so it was also attacked with buckets of water. The steam smothered the fire in the burning room and in the attic. Fast hard work. More clean up that repair afterwards.
I almost moved to Paradise CA as a teen. Beautiful rural town back then. The hospital was trying to hire my dad. I’m sure my family would have stayed there. We stayed in Napa county instead. The earlier fires there and in Santa Rose just across the hills was a wonderful place to be. As an adult I’ve moved several times. Fire is always a danger.
I have a bag I’d hope to be able to grab if we had to get out quickly. Certified copies of Legal papers et. Meds. Fresh snack bars. A change of clothing seasonal appropriate for each of us. A lite jacket. Even summer nights are cool at 6,000 + elevation.
Last time I lost all my clothing. Thankfull everyone else had clothing in other rooms. Kids lost their beds. The quilts melted and burned and destroyed everything. Heat not flames did that.
I’m just moving into a repoed smaller mobile home. Just the right size for great grandparents. We have a daybed and a large footrest that opens to a twin bed so a place company can stay. Not built but planned for soon, are long porches under living and sleeping areas so window escape if necessary will be an option fire us. Fire makes you aware for the future. Hope more will plan without having that experience.
This years losses to fires, weather, and accidents have been horrible. When many are involved response time isn’t quick to every individual. Personal planning is key to surviving.
Thanks again for a thought provoking timely article.
Robert Radtke | November 12, 2018
The builder of my home with vinyl siding told me this, if you can’t get out thru a door. In a frame type building, without a brick outer wall, just kick out the drywall and vinyl siding. then crawl out. No one, even fire fighters, have come up with this!
Dale Armelin | November 13, 2018
You’re wrong, Robert. That’s an old firefighter trick. As a retired firefighter, I know. We were trained to always bring a tool: Axe, sledge hammer, Haligan, etc. with us into a fire in case we had to make our own exit through a wall. If we were in a house such as yours, we were taught that we could also use the tank of our air packs as a battering ram by slamming our backs against the wall to smash through the drywall and exterior siding to make our own exit.
john oakman | November 13, 2018
The “3 second ” video has so much yaking and NEVER getting to the point—-I couldn’t get to the end.
MarkF | February 18, 2019
excellent article and much appreciated, as the fires in paradise california and grenfell tower both scared the crap out of me.
live on third floor of walk up apartment building. while i worry about idiots smoking or cooking accidents, the unique hazard to my own unit is that the laundry area is directly below mine on the first floor of a wood frame building. even though i use the nicer area in the next building, i walk thru the one below mine to make sure no stray socks, wrappers, lint, or other debris gets caught behind any of the washers and dryers.
months ago, the vendor guy restocked the pop machine in that laundry area, giving me a chance to see the inside of it. the refrigeration compressor was completely covered with dust to the point that one could not tell what it was. i called coca cola distributor (phone numbers are usually on the unit) and told them “your machine needs to be cleaned cos it’s going to burn my house down!” they sent someone to clean it, and when i called to follow up, the person was all “oh yeah, that needed to be cleaned! thank you!”
no matter what you live above or below, keep a fire extinguisher, a fire escape ladder (kidde brand makes them), and if you are in snow country, always keep your balcony and misc entrances/exits cleared of snow as well as the regularly used front door. it’s a lot of nuisance work, especially during a snowy year, yet being forced into a foot of snow while it’s five degrees outside in the middle of the night is not an optimal escape! if it’s too much shoveling, at least clear all doorways so they can be opened without resistance, having made it outside, one can then stand in relative safety and fresh air before tramping thru the snow towards the front.
other hazard that’s more common nowadays: electronics and any device that needs charging. make certain any gaming consoles, tvs, monitors, etc are regularly dusted and have room to breathe. unplug them if you are going to be away for longer than a day. keep a smoke detector above any entertainment center, as well as above wherever you charge your phones, etc. try to recharge any devices when you are home during waking hours so if it goes ‘poof’, you have a chance of doing something about it.
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BrianS | April 18, 2019
Just a little caution about reading information from other countries…
There are different colour codes used for fire extinguishers around the world. If you are reading information from another country then please check to make sure that the colour code matches your country. You would think that a common code would be used worldwide but it isn’t. Some colour codes are so different that following advice to use a colour extinguisher – like some DIY books & articles suggest – could get you killed.
Dry powder extinguishers are very common & are often in vehicles. I was in the Air Force & when we did basic fire fighting a fire officer took us to an extinguisher on a hangar wall. It had been serviced some months earlier but when he took it from the wall & pulled the trigger all we heard was a whoosh of gas. The vibration from the tarmac had caused the powder to cake up. He told us that it often happened with extinguishers in vehicles too.
He showed us one that was caked solid, put the top back on & then hit it smartly on the ground a couple of times & opened it again to show that it had loosened all the powder up. He advised us to always rap a dry powder extinguisher on the ground a few times before using it.
One article I saw by a paramedic stated that although it shouldn’t ever be done, if a dry fire extinguisher IS EVER USED ON A PERSON then the extinguisher should go with the patient to hospital so that medical staff know what the contents were. Some contents are very corrosive or poisonous on burns so medical staff need to know what they are dealing with. The paramedic stated to INSIST that it is taken with the patient & to tell police or ambulance staff the reason why you want it taken with them.
Eric | November 15, 2019
Your comment that fires tend to spread into cooler areas isn’t right. Fires burn towards an oxygen source. The source could be down the hall or up above. Opening doors and windows to escape also lets in more oxygen. So if you don’t close them as you go the fire can and usually does follow your exit path.
Good article Chris
Eric, Retired Toronto Firefighter
David Robinson | November 11, 2021
Heat flows from hot to cold. This is why an ice cube must melt when exposed to a hot day, rather than becoming colder. So, yes, fire burns toward cooler fuel source and burns hotter in an oxygen rich environment.
Jim | March 20, 2022
Couple of tips: Use the back of ungloved hand to check for heat on a door or knob. If hot enough to burn you, it’ll be on the back not the side you need to escape. Also, electric wires can come down and get on the door knob/ metal door…using the back of your hand prevents you from “clutching” due to electricity, the knob. Also. Hang a sheet, towel or blanket from window and close it back, to slow fire spread toward you, if trapped on upper floor. FD will know someone is in there.
Michael Morris | January 13, 2020
Wonderful lifesaving article on what to do in a fire situation.
john silvers | August 19, 2022
After reading your article, I’m building a second, external stairway from my third floor. One stairway may be a death trap.