NEW YORK – Several survivors later told reporters that when they saw the hallways fill with smoke, they returned to their apartments to await rescue rather than flee. That was the correct answer, according to the National Fire Protection Association (or NFPA), a nonprofit organization that writes codes and standards and educates the public about fire safety.
However, what you should do in the event of a fire depends in part on the design of the building and the location of the fire.
In general, the NFPA says that people should evacuate a burning building if it is safe to do so. First, they should feel the doors before opening them, leaving them closed and looking for another exit if they are hot to the touch. Residents should close all doors behind them to prevent the spread of smoke and fire. They should make sure they have their keys with them in case they have to return to their apartments.
In most high-rise buildings, the closest stairway is the emergency exit, but if it fills with fire or smoke, people must find another exit. If no exit is safe, they should return to their apartments and shelter in place. In the Bronx fire, survivors told reporters that both hallways and stairways were filled with smoke.
FIRE RESISTANT BUILDINGS
Every apartment in New York City must have a notice on the door stating whether the building is considered combustible or non-combustible, depending on the way it was built.
Those notices instruct people who live in fire-safe high-rise buildings not to evacuate but to shelter in place unless the fire is in their own apartment.
The Bronx apartment building that burned down is considered non-combustible, meaning it has concrete floors and ceilings. In fact, the fire, apparently caused by a malfunctioning heater, did not actually spread beyond the unit where it started and an adjacent hallway.
But the door to the apartment where the fire started did not close behind the fleeing tenants, allowing smoke to quickly spread throughout the building, including the escape stairs.
Sheltering-in-place residents should use wet towels, wet sheets, or duct tape to seal doors and vents and prevent smoke from entering. They should call 911 to alert the firefighters that they are trapped and give their exact location. They should also point at a window by waving a flashlight or a light-colored cloth, according to the NFPA.
Trapped residents can open windows to let in fresh air or to signal firefighters, but they should not break windows. That can allow smoke to enter from the outside, leaving them with no way to avoid it.
Pictures and testimonials here.
SMOKE VS. FIRE
Most fire deaths are not caused by burns, but by smoke inhalation, according to the NFPA.
Today, homes tend to contain many products made from synthetic fibers that burn at very high temperatures, helping fires to spread quickly, said Susan McKelvey, a spokeswoman for the association. They also generate toxic gases that can beat people in moments. In a typical home fire, residents may only have a couple of minutes to escape safely when the smoke alarm goes off, he said.
“The fires are spreading much faster now,” McKelvey said. “And it’s not necessarily the flames that can hurt someone. It’s the smoke and toxic gases that make it really difficult to see and breathe. “
As fire grows inside a building, it will often consume the available oxygen. Smoke also contains carbon monoxide, which works within the body to deprive victims of the oxygen they need. And the toxic chemicals in smoke can cause organ damage.
New York City Fire Department EMS Chief Lillian Bonsignore compared the possible long-term impacts of intense smoke exposure to those of having a stroke.
“The cells in your body and the organs in your body are quite sensitive,” he said. “So when you put them under this kind of stress, or this kind of toxicity or lack of oxygen, those cells may not be able to return. So you’re left with this kind of residual damage. “
The aid includes assistance for flights to bury victims in their home countries, as needed.
PREPARATION IS KEY
The basic principles are the same whether you live in a tall building, a detached single-family home, or a row house, like the one that burned down in Philadelphia last week and killed 12 people, McKelvey said.
Homes need good, working smoke detectors that are checked frequently. Additionally, residents should have an escape plan and practice that plan. It is especially important to know who will be responsible for ensuring the safety of children or people with mobility problems. In an apartment building, residents should ask the building manager about emergency protocols, McKelvey said.
In the Bronx fire, some survivors told reporters that they initially ignored the smoke alarm because they were used to false alarms. Even when that’s not the case, people in hotels and high-rise buildings are often hesitant to evacuate, McKelvey said.
“People don’t respond until they see real signs of danger, but at that point it is very likely too late to escape,” he said. “You always have to take a smoke alarm seriously.”