Download The Wellington App for more stories like this.

200 seconds to die, if you don’t have a plan

You all know what to do to prevent yourself dying in a fire, right?

You may have your photoelectric smoke alarms up to date (daylight saving this weekend, good time to check the batteries), and know that if you have the misfortune to be caught in a house fire, you need to dial 111, get down low with a wet cloth over your face, and get out quickly.

That may not be enough.

Jay Elkington and Helen Jones of the Fire Service at the Home & Garden Show

One of the eye-opening experiences at last weekend’s Home & Garden show (apart from seeing a spa bath as big as my bedroom and finding out about the burgeoning artificial turf business) was talking to Fire Service staff and expanding my knowledge of the dangers of fire.

First, fire is fast. You have two to three minutes to get out of the house. That may sound a long time, but can evaporate quickly if you don’t have a plan of action for all inhabitants.

Second, while toxic smoke can be a killer, heat can be just as bad. The size of a fire can double in seconds, and after just 90 seconds in a small room, the temperature can go to 90°C, with the smoke layer rapidly descending, and after a couple of minutes, the temperature can get up to over 200°C which will cause the human body to shut down, even if the lungs and beating passages haven’t already been compromised.

My son and I were shown how this happens by Fire Service demonstrator Jay Elkington, using a Virtual Reality simulation of a house fire, started by clothes on drying rack that were closer than a metre to a heater.

As the fire spread to the fittings and furniture, the heat (visible by pointing to areas in the VR) increased exponentially, remembering that the synthetic materials used in modern furniture burn hotter and faster, producing more toxic smoke, than natural wood or cotton.

But even if you’re prepared for that, and shift instantly into evacuation mode, you need a plan.

The Fire Service recommends getting everyone who lives in your house together and walk through every room, identifying exits then determining a primary escape route (and secondary backup in case the first one is blocked by fire).

Ideally there should be two ways out of every room, with doors and windows that can be opened easily. Small children should be encouraged to draw escape plans from their bedrooms and memorise the quickest way out of the house.

You can also use the Fire Service’s online Escape Planner Tool to go through the steps of creating an escape plan.

This EPT starts with establishing a safe meeting place outside, away from the house, with a landmark like a letterbox or special tree. The Fire Service have stickers to mark these spots.

This meeting place is important, as it will let all members of a household – and the Fire Service on arrival – know who has escaped the fire safely. And avoid dangerous confusion.

Jay Elkington tells the story of a recent fire where a father and son were the only ones in the house, and had to escape from different rooms.

Because they had no assigned meeting place outside, neither knew if the other had escaped and they couldn’t find each other outside the house. The father re-entered the house and was found two metres inside the front door, overcome by heat or smoke.

You don’t want that sort of thing happening.

Make a plan this weekend. Check your smoke alarms. And read more here.