Until it directly impacts a friend or family member, a lot of people don’t think that fire emergencies will happen to them. If fire safety is taken seriously, though, it may help reduce the risk of injury and death.
I am a second-generation firefighter who followed in the footsteps of my father. I served in the armed forces from 1990 to 1994, and after being discharged, I wanted an occupation that was about dedication and service. My father served as a Philadelphia firefighter for 26 years and was a lieutenant for 24 of those years. He was well-respected, so I followed in his footsteps.
I’ve been reflecting on the 12 people who lost their lives last week on 23rd Street. Just days later, I followed the New York City Fire Department’s response to a similar event in an apartment building in the Bronx. Every fire is complex and different. It’s hard to know what could’ve saved the dozen people in Fairmount or the 17 lives in the Bronx. But having a plan is one way to keep your family safer.
Fire safety starts with fire prevention. It is important that people learn about fire safety in their homes, schools, and workplaces, and have an evacuation plan for each. Today, the Philadelphia Fire Department’s Fire Prevention Unit has a wide array of educational programs, including ones that cater to youth and older adults. My colleagues in this unit go to Philadelphia schools, both public and parochial, to talk about fires. The Fire Prevention Unit also discusses prevention and escape plans with elders at senior centers.
But there is only so much that we as a department can do on our own. Philadelphians have to continue these conversations at home and with their families.
Most people don’t understand that smoke is deadly. There are carcinogens from the plastics and chemicals in the paint that are burning. With the materials used today in furniture, paints, and dyes, the smoke itself is toxic to breathe.
Here are three things that every Philadelphian should know about fire safety:
First, everybody needs to have a smoke alarm on every level of their residence and a carbon monoxide detector on the levels where people sleep at night — that way, people can hear it.
Second, the bedroom doors need to be closed when you go to sleep. This helps to stop the travel of fire, reduces the amount of smoke that can enter the room, and gives more time for occupants to gather themselves to think about a path of escape.
Third, families should practice a fire drill twice a year. I would suggest in the fall and in the spring, when the weather is mild. Your home escape plan should include two ways to exit the building so that you have a plan B if plan A is blocked. Have a meeting place outside of your property where all family members can be accounted for. Once you’re outside, stay out and call 911. Do not go back in for pets.
Firefighters are paid to respond to fire emergencies, but there’s only so much that we can do. Civilians also have an important role to play. If we embed the message of fire safety early in people’s lives, it will become a habit and something that kids can talk about with their friends and family.
Those kids, when they become parents, will teach their kids. This cycle of talking and thinking about fire safety can save lives — because fire is everyone’s fight.
Brian Anderson is a firefighter in the Philadelphia Fire Department and curator at Fireman’s Hall Museum.