A few years ago I treated a 5-year-old boy who had
been severely burned in a house fire. Some faulty wiring caused a fire in the walls that spread rapidly to engulf the entire home. Family members hurried out of the house but the boy remained inside. Firefighters found him inside a closet, badly burned and unconscious. They think he became confused and frightened when the fire started and hid in the closet to get away from the flames. If he had known what to do he may have been found sooner and may not have suffered the painful and permanent burn wounds that will leave him scarred for a lifetime.
It may be surprising to know that many children who are separated from their parents during a fire hide under a bed or in a closet because they don’t know what else to do. Firefighters can lose precious time searching for them. Sometimes the child will see the firefighters as they come to the rescue but they can look so scary in their big coat, heavy boots and mask and can sound scary, too, because the mask makes their voice mechanical. In that moment of panic and fear without their mom and dad, some young children may choose to stay hidden, sometimes with deadly results.
Every year I see countless children who have been injured in house fires. Many suffer very serious injuries like severe burns to large areas of their bodies and smoke inhalation that causes irreversible brain damage. Nationwide more than 3,000 people die in house fires and more than 13,000 are injured every year. Younger children are at very high risk, with children under 5 twice as likely to die as the rest of the population.
If your house caught on fire, would your child know what to do? Have you discussed fire safety with your child and do you regularly practice a home fire drill? Firefighters urge parents to develop a home escape plan, teach it to their children and rehearse it regularly. Home escape plans teach children what to do in a fire and have been proven to reduce the chances of injury and death.
To develop a home escape plan:
n Draw a floor plan of your home and locate at least two exits from each room. In many cases the second exit may be out of a window.
n Go to each room and determine which window provides the best escape. Make sure that the child who sleeps in that room can open the window and that there is an escape ladder stored near the window if needed. If the child is too young or cannot get out on their own, decide who will help in a fire.
n When practicing the home escape plan, show children how to cover their nose and mouth to reduce smoke inhalation. Tell them to crawl on their hands and knees since smoke rises, leaving more fresh air near the floor.
n Make sure bars on windows have a quick release device so family members don’t get trapped inside.
n Install smoke detectors and make sure they are in good working order regularly.
n Stress the fact that children should immediately get themselves out in the event of a fire. They should not run through the house looking for others. Make sure they know to go to a neighbor’s home and call 911.
n Teach your children they should never go back into the house once they have escaped from the fire.
n If your child has special needs such as problems with vision, hearing or mobility you should contact your local fire department and find out if they have a system to alert them about your child in the event of a fire.
n Tell your children what to do if they become trapped. Teach them to close doors between their location and the smoke. Doors hold back smoke and fire so the chances of survival improve. Stuff cracks and cover vents to keep smoke out. If there is a phone, they should call 911 with their exact location for the fire department even if firefighters are already on the scene. Tell them to wait at the window and signal with a sheet, a flashlight or something visible. And let them know that a firefighter will come to rescue them, but he may look like a giant and sound like Darth Vader.
Do you have a health question you’d like me to address? If so, contact me at email@example.com. This column is not intended to be medical advice. For specific health concerns consult your physician.
Dr. Lisa Thornton, a mother of three, is director of pediatric rehabilitation at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and LaRabida Children’s Hospital. She also is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.