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Escaping a fire
The Star, Saturday January 15,


In the last Survival Smarts, we talked about preventing fires and minimising risks. This issue looks at evacuating safely during a fire. 

In A fire, it is not only the flames that kill – smoke, too, is extremely lethal, and its killing ability is often underestimated.  

It’s sometimes highly toxic and invisible. A single breath into your lungs, and it could knock you out or kill you. Smoke also chokes victims to death by depriving them of oxygen. Most victims of fire succumb to the smoke and toxic gases, and not to burns. 

In a fire, time is critical. Don't waste time getting dressed, don't search for pets or valuables. Just get out. Roll out of bed and stay low to avoid breathing in smoke or gas. You might have to get out by crawling. Though it may seem slower, it might be the only way out alive. 

According to the US Fire Administration (USFA,, fire produces poisonous gases that can spread rapidly and far from the fire itself to claim victims who are asleep and not even aware of the fire. Even if residents awaken, the effects of exposure to these gases can cloud their thinking and slow their reaction so that they cannot make their escape. 

When escaping your home or other premises, carefully touch doors before opening them as a fire could be raging outside and waiting to come in. If the door is warm, try another exit. If none exist, seal the cracks around the doors and vents with anything available. The best air is close to the floor, so crawl if necessary.  

If breathing is difficult, try to ventilate the room by opening windows. Cover your mouth and nose with a damp cloth to help you breathe. If trapped, try and call the fire department, giving them your exact location. 

If you are forced to run through a burning area to safety, the SAS Survival Handbook by John Wiseman suggests covering yourself (including your head) with a blanket, curtain or overcoat (preferably wet), then taking a deep breath and go. 

Always sleep with the bedroom doors closed. This will keep deadly smoke and heat out, giving you additional time to escape. Keep a flashlight in every room. If somebody catches fire, smother flames by grabbing a blanket, rug, curtain or carpet and wrapping the person up like a tortilla. This could save them from serious burns or even death. 

If you are on fire, remember this – stop, drop and roll; preferably wrap yourself in something too. Running all over the place won’t save you – this will only get you cooked faster. 

Safe evacuation 

When in a relatively safe room and awaiting rescue, ensure all doors are closed (not locked) to contain the spread of fire. The SAS guide says you should go to a room or a floor “as far as possible from the fire (but not to a higher level unless you are certain that rescuers with ladders or other equipment are very close). If there is a choice, pick a room with the softest ground outside, no railings below and no grills, or where there are beddings or curtains which you can knot into a rope.” 

It adds that if no rescue is forthcoming, do not jump – drop. Tie material together to make a rope – even if it does not reach the ground it reduces the distance you’ll drop. If there’s nothing to use as a rope, lower yourself out of the window and hang from the sill before dropping. A car roof makes a good cushion to drop on as it will give slightly to your weight. 

Protect your head by wrapping with a cloth or towel.  

“Before you land, protect the sides of your head with your arms, bend your knees and then roll over to one side, carrying the roll onto your back. This helps spread the impact over a larger area and increases your chances,” says the guide.  

Know the layout of the floor where you work or live. You have to know where the stairs and exits are, as well as the extinguishers and the fire alarms.  

The Malaysian Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association says that a fire in a high-rise residential building usually can be confined to the apartment where it starts. However, smoke and heat can travel throughout the building, especially upwards.  

Among the many tips it provides on its website ( 

If the fire is NOT in your apartment: 

  • STAY inside rather than entering smoke-filled hallways, especially if the fire is above your apartment.  

  • CALL the fire department with your apartment number and a description of the conditions in your apartment. If you feel you are in grave danger, open a window and wave a bed sheet for firemen to spot you.  

    In the home, it is advisable to minimise fire risks by taking such measures as: 

  • INSTALLING and maintaining smoke detectors; 

  • DRAWING an escape plan for your home (including two exits for every room); and 

  • PRACTISING the plan with the entire family 

    In a fire, leave immediately.  

  • GET out and stay out 

  • GO TO a safe meeting point 

  • CALL for help by dialling 994. 

  • FOR office building evacuation, your employer or building management should have held fire drills and explained evacuation procedures to the staff. W

    Originally published in The Star on Saturday January 15,


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