In a fire is it better to try and rescue my child or get out and wait for the fire department?
May 3, 2011 10:50 AM   Subscribe

Fire Safety: I have a 16 month old son. If there is a house fire while I'm sleeping is it better to try and rescue him or get out of the house and wait for the fire department to rescue him?

Some more details: I live in a raised ranch style house so our main living space is on the 2nd story. My son's bedroom is right across the hall from mine. My bedroom has a window that opens onto our deck so escaping would be pretty easy. It's about a 15 foot drop from my son's bedroom window to the ground.

My plan right now: My wife would try to get our dog out our bedroom window and then evacuate herself. I would wrap a wet blanket around my face and try to cross the hallway into my son's bedroom. If the smoke doesn't seem too bad I would try to run back to my bedroom and go out the window onto the deck. If the smoke is bad I would use strap my son into a baby carrier and use an escape ladder to get out my son's bedroom window (or jump if I didn't think I had enough time to set up the ladder).

I know how fast a fire can spread and how bad smoke can be so is this a stupid plan? Would it be safer to just get out and hope the fire department comes quickly after calling 911? I don't think I could bare to evacuate knowing my son is still in the house. And yes, I will be contacting my local fire department to see what they recommend.
posted by bingwah to Home & Garden (32 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
As in any emergency, you should adapt to the happenings of the emergency. Do what is safest and best for the circumstances.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 10:53 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't think any parent would be okay with leaving their kid in there, at least not in theory.
Have you done a few test runs to see how long it takes and so you can get better at it?
posted by Neekee at 10:54 AM on May 3, 2011

A lot of parents die in house fires trying to rescue their children. As a parent I cannot imagine it being any other way.
posted by TedW at 10:57 AM on May 3, 2011 [33 favorites]

The plan is to have good smoke detectors that are updated with new batteries regularly. That way you get alerted early and can grab your son and get out of the house. Then you can call the fire department and have them deal with it.
posted by procrastination at 11:01 AM on May 3, 2011 [7 favorites]

Whatever else you may do, make sure you get stickers from your fire department to place on your son's room. These stickers vary from department to department, but they alert the fire fighters that there is a small child inside and I believe they are trained to look for these stickers upon arriving at the scene. In the event you are not able to get to him for whatever reason, they may be able to through a window.

As a PSA to everyone, everyone should get these stickers from their local fire department.

They are also available to indicate the presence of pets.
posted by zizzle at 11:03 AM on May 3, 2011 [9 favorites]

Having a 9 month old son now, I can't even imagine any scenario where I WOULDN'T try to get him before getting out myself. I think it's our most basic job as a parent to protect our child. If, God forbid, anything should happen to your child and not to you, could you live with yourself knowing that you didn't try everything you could to save your baby?
posted by katypickle at 11:06 AM on May 3, 2011

I don't think anyone can tell you not to try rescuing your child. I am sure I will go for it. That said, there are a few things you can do to minimize the risks.

1. Buy a couple of fire extinguishers. One in your bedroom and one in your son's bedroom. Your local fire department can help you decide on which type to buy (most common source of fires are due to cigarette smoking or electrical fires, I think)

2. Setup an escape ladder like the ones you see on airplanes - tie a long piece of flame retardant to thick sticks and put up near your child's bedroom window. When you pick up your son, you don't need to "climb" down, but slide down. In a few years, your son may be able to do this on his own

3. Build a large tank of water below the window. Helpful to keep the window from burning. Fire/smoke detectors are mandatory, of course

I have seen one or more of these in older, rural areas where it takes the fire department at least 20-30 minutes to arrive on scene.

Here's wishing you never have to use them!
posted by theobserver at 11:08 AM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think it is good to plan for things, but I also think that in the event of a fire you would know what to do. It depends on the circumstances, those here being - can I get to my kids room without dying?

As mentioned above, the best plan is to make this scenario as unlikely as possible by having up to date smoke detectors. And of course do things like check that you don't have electrical cords buried under rugs, paper above or near incandescent light bulbs, etc.

Finally, a fire extinguisher in your room would also reduce the odds of not being able to get to your kid's room.

A final mitigation, if you are concerned that you would not be able to get to your toddler, would be to put the toddler in a crib in your room.
posted by zippy at 11:09 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

You can read this link for a description of how quickly a fire can get bad (warning, sad). The term is flashover, and if you have reached that point you are likely to be lucky to escape with your own life. Rescue of others will likely be impossible.
posted by procrastination at 11:09 AM on May 3, 2011

where would you get the wet blanket?
posted by dawkins_7 at 11:12 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Additionally, take measures to prevent fires.

Check to make sure the stove is off before bed. Clean out the lint trap in your dryer regularly, and more than the lint trap, once a year or so, clean under the lint trap and under the dryer.

When you're done with candles, wet them in the sink before throwing them away. Be sure all cords to appliances are in safe, operable condition. Check your smoke alarm batteries once a year, as well as your carbon monoxide detector. Keep matches in a high up, safe place away from papers and if possible cloth or wood.

Keep multiple routes of exit clear --- whether by door or window --- by removing obstacles from the floor (we are bad about this, I admit).

For you and your wife, but as your son gets older, have a designated meeting place outside of your home in the event of such an emergency. For me growing up, it was a particular tree across the street from our house. For you it may be a neighbor's porch, or a driveway three doors down, or something else. But pick a spot, and in any emergency, that is where you meet if you are able to.

(Both my grandfathers were firefighters --- this stuff is ingrained to me, and thank you for reminding me that I need to get on some of this stuff for my own home and with my own family.)
posted by zizzle at 11:13 AM on May 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

Thanks zizzle. I will ask about the stickers when I contact the fire department. dawkins_7, I have a bathroom with a shower in my bedroom (and towels).

In a situation like a fire I would undoubtedly try to rescue him based on pure instinct. I guess my question is more about what would give him the highest probability of surviving. My fire department is only about a mile away so I would hope the response time would be quick. Obviously this would all depend on the circumstances but is there a rule of thumb in the firefighting community on this?
posted by bingwah at 11:16 AM on May 3, 2011

Like many others are suggesting, I think the important thing is to have lots of working fire detectors. I'd skip the wet towel because in the time it would take you to get one you could probably grab your son and be halfway out of the house.

I'd also skip rescuing the dog. It's more important for your wife to just get out or help you rescue your son, or call 911 (from outside with a cell phone or from your neighbors).
posted by 14580 at 11:20 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yup, we have a smoke detector in the hall between our bedrooms and we'll be putting one in my son's room as well as ours. Good point about the towel. Time is of the essence in that situation. I know it's definitely not recommended to try and rescue pets but I don't think my wife could leave the dog behind. He sleeps in our room with us and it's easy to get out onto our deck from our bedroom window.
posted by bingwah at 11:27 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you or your wife continue to be reasonably safe and able-bodied and there are potential options available to you, than you must continue to attempt to rescue your son. If one of you is no longer reasonably safe or able-bodied or there are not longer potential options available to you, you will have no choice but to abandon the rescue.

Part of rescue is the involvement of trained professionals, but it may not be all of a rescue scenario. You install fire safety ladders, alarms, alert stickers, and walk through drills because you are already accepting responsibility for at large part of a rescue scenario. Also, if you haven't, take CPR/first aid.

You are suggesting preemptively abandoning a rescue in favor of turfing the rescue to professionals who may have more critical cases triaged ahead of yours, making any rescue, at all, impossible.

Further, children's airways are more quickly and easily overcome and compromised, they require more immediate rescue from smoke inhalation. I'm also wondering why you wouldn't swap rooms with your child, giving you more rescue options.

I understand making a plan that gets your wife to safety, however, if you become overcome, she is an available assist; additionally she can work with you as a team in keeping an escape path clear, yelling to and alerting authorities, or securing a ladder (and visa versa). A dog can await rescue or be released quickly and retrieved later.

You can also request that a rep from the fire department evaluate your home, your safety measures, and your escape plans.

I'm an RN, in grad school to be a pediatric PNP, I've been involved in critical and rescue scenarios (involving children), but you are concerned enough about these outcomes and potential actions that I would take advice from your thread as a starting point--have your place and plan evaluated by the FD. If you want professional rescue assistance, take advantage of it before you actually need it. Fire departments are much more invested and passionate about prevention than they ever get credit for.
posted by rumposinc at 11:29 AM on May 3, 2011 [5 favorites]

Don't waste time fussing with a car seat or carrier. Firefighters recommend wrapping infants or small children in a throw rug and carrying them out that way. The rug is also a better method of protection if you have to toss the child out a window down to someone (easier to catch a soft bundle).
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:30 AM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Last February there was a fire in the apartment below ours. My wife awoke to a half dozen fire alarms, she shouted at me, there was indistinct shouting in the hallway, and smoke seeped in from all doors. Our 2.5-year-old son was in bed with us. My wife grabbed him, went to the wrong door to the hallway, opened it without checking, saw and smelled the smoke and stench and slammed it shut and shouted plaintive words I don't remember. In the space of those seconds -- about two -- I grabbed my laptop bag and our "important papers" dossier (ready as part of my preplanning) and then with much shouting and with all the speed we had we we went out the other door into the hallway (without checking, again: there was also smoke and stench) and were on the street in our pajamas and underwear, barefoot, scared, but safe.

It all took under 30 seconds from the moment of waking to standing on the street looking at our building burn.

I write that to underscore that the time it would take you to get a wet blanket together or the time spent strapping a child into a baby carrier is wasted time. You have to move absolutely as fast as possible. You may have seconds. Get the fuck out of the house and fuck around with doing the absolute right thing. Practice, drill, and think about it to make sure you're more likely to do the right thing. For me, a wet towel and a baby carrier would be nowhere on the "right thing" list unless the fire is down the block and not already in my building.
posted by Mo Nickels at 11:54 AM on May 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

Er, that should be: Get the fuck out of the house and DON'T fuck around with doing the absolute right thing.
posted by Mo Nickels at 11:54 AM on May 3, 2011

And of course "save the child" is number one on the "right thing" list.

thinking about it has me unsettled again
posted by Mo Nickels at 11:55 AM on May 3, 2011

Your fire evacuation plan should include all the members of your household, of course.
posted by General Tonic at 11:58 AM on May 3, 2011

I honestly don't mean this to be snarky, but have you discussed this plan with your wife, and is she on board with it?

As much as I love my cats, I could not imagine trying to save my cat(s) and leaving my son inside a burning building (*shudder*). Even if I thought my husband planned on getting him, I think I'd be pushing him out of the way to do it myself.
posted by devotion+doubt at 12:25 PM on May 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

Correct me if I'm wrong, but...

When the fire alarm goes off in your house, you're supposed to check the door to your room first - feel it to see if it's warm. If yes, then there is fire outside your door and that way out is technically barred... and you have a tough decision on your hands. If no, then drop to your hands and knees (hot air and smoke rises) and open your door, do a visible check of hazards, and then you can CRAWL across the hall to rescue your son. DO NOT STAND UP - though there might not be any visible smoke, there could be hazardous gases that will suffocate you, you might pass out and both you and your son will die. A wet cloth over your face won't stop you from breathing these gases, your best protection is to keep low to the ground.
posted by lizbunny at 12:28 PM on May 3, 2011

devotion+doubt - Yes my wife and I discussed the plan. I really don't mean to be snarky either but did you read the details I wrote? It does not involve saving my dog and leaving my son in a burning house. My plan was to go get my son while my wife goes out my bedroom window. My question was whether this was a good plan.
posted by bingwah at 12:31 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have a responsibility to my family, and thats a scenario where I am simultaneously MVP and the most expendable. That means, I go get our son and bring him to us first. Meanwhile, my wife gets out of the house on her own, and I pass her our son. The dogs go third, and I go last. If it is a question of me or the dogs, the dogs get rescued by the fire department and I exit before them. When my daughter is born, then it is: Get to our son, get the wife out, get our daughter out the window, get our son out the window, get the dogs out, and then go out myself. I have no concern for our physical things in that scenario. If there is time to be concerned about physical things, then I still get everyone out, but I finish by going for the computer and a few, readily accessible, files.

Personally, I could not live with myself if I didn't make every reasonable effort to get my child to safety.
posted by Nanukthedog at 12:40 PM on May 3, 2011

I'm a professional firefighter, and I wish I could tell you that there's a standard that governs how you should approach this, but there isn't. Everyone's plan/actions will differ based on the house design, source of ignition, fire load (both the building construction and the flammables within it), proximity of the nearest firehouse and the training level of the people who would be responding to help you. Like others, I would emphasize that speed may be of the essence. Do the fastest safe thing you can to get your entire family out. I've been on many fires in which people literally bailed out their windows as soon as they heard the smoke alarm go off, and that decision saved their lives.

Have both a plan A and a plan B, and C. What if the fire is in the hall? What if it's under your window? I want to tell you that you can rely on the professionals to make a rescue no matter what, but what you do in the seconds you may have to react will likely be more instrumental in your survival.

Also, PLEASE, everyone: if everyone is out of the fire, let the first arriving fire units know. I hesitate to describe how personal this is for me. Firefighters may take great risks looking for residents if they believe they're trapped a fire. If they know you're out, it may literally save their lives.

Finally, prevention, prevention, prevention. No unmonitored candles. Annual chimney cleaning. Extreme care with fireplace ashes. Clean dryer vents. Extreme care with cigarettes and ashtrays. And so forth.
posted by itstheclamsname at 12:41 PM on May 3, 2011 [18 favorites]

Nth-ing the prevention theme. It can't be said too often. DON'T let the fires start. Read up on all the many ways you can reduce or eliminate the danger.

Now: DRY cloth over your face. It works better and doesn't waste precious seconds fiddling with the tap. Crawl fast and LOW to get to your child. The heat difference just a few feet up is unbelievable. Practice finding every door with your eyes closed and confusing noises blasting. Practice a lot!

Have a ladder in your yard and a way to break the window. (Secure as needed if home security is an issue.) If the way between your room and your son's is blocked, or your doorknob is hot to the touch, get out and try to get to him that way. It may be his best chance.

Is your cell phone where you can grab it instantly? If you have to exit fast, or the land lines are destroyed, that's your way of getting help quickly.

There are scenarios where your son's best chance is for you and your wife to get out and call for help, but I wouldn't count on being able to do that; it's not human nature. So plan and practice now for the least risk and greatest chance of success in the course of action you will probably follow.
posted by wjm at 1:59 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think it's better to try to rescue the child because once you are outside and see the flames and the smoke pouring out you'll be overcome with temptation to go back inside. At that point, things would most likely be even worse and more dangerous and the chances of both of you making it out unscathed would be diminished.

I really like the idea of talking this over with the fire department. They would probably have the best suggestions.
posted by amanda at 3:12 PM on May 3, 2011

A lot of parents die in house fires trying to rescue their children. As a parent I cannot imagine it being any other way.

There are a number of scenarios where waiting for professional help to arrive is a good plan, but getting out of a fire is not one of them. Fires almost always start small and progress geometrically. If your smoke detectors are installed in good locations, you will likely have enough warning to grab your son and get out unscathed.

I probably wouldn't want to have a kid's bedroom very far from a parent's bedroom until the kid is old enough to escape on their own

Consider installing fire sprinklers. Some municipalities are requiring this of new construction, and they save lives and money. And implement the rest of the good fire prevention tips noted here.

Also, PLEASE, everyone: if everyone is out of the fire, let the first arriving fire units know. I hesitate to describe how personal this is for me. Firefighters may take great risks looking for residents if they believe they're trapped a fire. If they know you're out, it may literally save their lives.

This is a great point. Only if you are sure, however.
posted by gjc at 5:59 PM on May 3, 2011

The heat difference just a few feet up is unbelievable.

Seconded. We had a fire (unattended candle!!!) in our house, and there was a Compaq monitor on a desk. The top half was grotesquely melted, the bottom half was fully intact and had a little soot on it. The line between intact and melted was shockingly well-defined and level.
posted by gjc at 6:04 PM on May 3, 2011

Just a suggestion if you are getting new smoke detectors - make sure you have a working CO detector as well, or a unit which does both.
posted by NoDef at 7:05 PM on May 3, 2011

I've had to get children out of a burning building, and was making a 911 call at the same time. The kids were all asleep when it started in a remote part of the house, luckily away from the sleeping and living areas.

Trust your adrenaline.

Sometimes I wish I had the recording of that call, because I remember being totally calm with the operator while our house was burning and doing the head count out (mixed family, so stepkids) near the door at the same time.

I handed off my youngest daughter to my then oldest stepdaughter in the yard and was heading back. My then husband was carrying out our youngest boy, who was a bit older than yours, so I went back the yard to double-check the head count. Luckily we had grabbed some blankets, because it was cold out. (The 11-year anniversary of this event just happened a few days ago, and I don't think I'll ever quite forget it.)

Here's the thing. I hope you never, ever have to deal with such a thing. Fire is such an abstract thing. It eats, it goes out, it spreads in mysterious ways.

But, if you do, trust your gut. Any parent will do what they do at the time.
There's not really a lot of logic involved. Please don't think you can have a rational plan.

We were in a one-level place. Frankly, I'd be more tempted to toss a bundled (standard bedding wrapped like a papoose) 16-month old out of a second-story window than the alternative.
posted by lilywing13 at 1:45 AM on May 4, 2011

Lots of great advice here. I realize now that my question probably wasn't as clear as it should have been. In a real fire I would most definitely try to get my son. I would either get him or die trying. My question was more about whether the firefighting community would say that this was a good plan. And the answer from what I've gathered here depends on the situation but trying to get everyone out as fast as possible is the main goal.

I probably wouldn't want to have a kid's bedroom very far from a parent's bedroom until the kid is old enough to escape on their own
My son's bedroom is right across the hall from ours.

Please don't think you can have a rational plan.
We realize that no plan would work perfectly in a chaotic situation like a fire but we're just trying to be as prepared as possible.

So we're putting in more smoke detectors (possibly hard wired ones). We're also going to look into a sprinkler system. I now sleep with all the doors closed and a cell phone next to my bed. I'll be speaking with the fire department later this week and will post what they say here.
posted by bingwah at 7:21 AM on May 4, 2011

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