What to Do in a Fire
Fire may strike your hotel—or your home —before morning. If you panic, you perish
MR. AND MRS. PIERCE woke up at four o’clock in the morning, the smell of smoke strong in their nostrils. Their eyes smarted fiercely and their throats were raw.
It took them a few seconds to realize what was wrong. Then awareness came with a flash. The house was on fire.
Both thought instantly of their three-year-old son, asleep in the nursery across the hall. With a bound Pierce was out of bed and at the bedroom door. He flung it open urgently, his mind concentrated on the baby’s rescue.
The moment the door opened, a searing blast swept into the bedroom from the hall. A bright orange tongue of flame lashed across the room to the open window and the curtains disintegrated into ash. Pierce, his lungs seared by the fiery blast, was dead before the door was half open.
His wife tried to struggle through the billowing smoke and flame in a frantic effort to reach her son, but the fumes choked her and the flames forced her back euch time. Weakened, at last, to the point where the instinct of self-preservation took command, she stumbled toward the window, but collapsed on the floor before she reached it. In a moment the room was an inferno.
Ten minutes later, firemen entered the baby’s room by a ladder from outside. They found it heavy with smoke and the baby unconscious, but alive. In the fresh air he was quickly revived, sole
survivor of the blaze. The door from the hall to the child’s room had been tightly closed, and to that fact he owed his escape.
There is scarcely a fire chief in any Canadian city who has not an entry in his logbook similar in character to this. All too many of the 391 persons who died in Canadian fires last year signed their own death warrants in just such fashion.
Four factors were working that night to produce the fatal holocaust. They might be called the basic facts of fire—the first lessons in the firemen’s primer. Most of us have probably been introduced to all of them at one time or another, but few remember them or stop to think of them in an emergency.
First is the fact that fire needs two elements to keep it alive—fuel and oxygen.
Second, as a corollary of that, fire burns slowly in confined spaces, where there is only a limited supply of oxygen. In such circumstances it is usually a smoldering fire — small, persistent tongues of flame, creating a large column of smoke.
Anyone who has ever tried to start a furnace when the grates were clogged, or an unfavorable wind prevented draughts from working, is familiar enough with this. Unless the fuel at hand burns at a relatively low temperature, in fact, the fire may go out altogether.
Third, as such a fire burns, it creates pressures. The blaze warms the air around it to begin with, and warm air expands. To this pressure is added that of smoke and gases formed by combustion.
Fourth, the increasing pressure and the persistent flame raises temperatures to almost unbelievable heights. It is not only possible, but probable, that the gases in such a confined space are heated above their normal combustion point, requiring only the presence of oxygen to ignite them in one searing flash.
Hallways Are Deathtraps
WHEN Pierce opened his bedroom door, he provided all the circumstances needed for disaster. He relieved the pressure on the smoke and gases by providing them with perhaps 1,000 cubic feet of bedroom into which they could expand. The opening into the room was so small that the gases rushed in at tremendous velocity—like the muzzle blast of a gun. He fed a supply of oxygen to the overheated fumes. He provided a perfect draught passage through his bedroom window to the out-ofdoors. The result was the tremendous flash of fire which cost him his life.
Even had he stopped to think of all this, the unfortunate Mr. Pierce would probably have opened his bedroom door anyway. The fact that his child was in danger across the hall would have outweighed any other considerations.
That is why firemen and fire underwriters deplore hallways. They are the greatest fire deathtraps in any building. Had the baby been in an adjoining room, reached by a connecting door, he could have been rescued and the whole family could have escaped by the window with comparatively little difficulty.
But Pierce, at least, could have given himself half a chance if he had observed one cardinal fire safety rule:
When your house is on fire, never open a door leading onto a hallway without finding out whether the hall is full of fumes and flame.
Feel the door. If it’s hot, you can expect trouble.
If you must open it to attempt to save someone’s life, stand well back of the opening until the rush of flame is over.
Halls and stairways are the greatest hazards in any fire. Halls, because they are the places where smoke and gases can be expected to accumulate in heaviest concentrations; stairways, because they offer a natural chimney, up which smoke and flame travel at amazing speed.
Early in 1947 a Toronto family tragically learned the fatal hazards of stairways. Fire broke out in a downstairs room one morning, while the mother was busy in another room. Her two children were asleep upstairs.
The mother discovered the blaze before it had made much progress, and realized at once that she could not hope to extinguish it herself. She ran up the stairs to the children’s bedroom, but made the
mistake of trying to take them out by the same route.
In the fraction of a minute between the time she mounted the stairs and found the children, the stairway had become a mass of flames and smoke. She lost one child in the smoke, but saved herself and the other by climbing out of a window in another room. Had she lowered both from the bedroom window and jumped or scrambled out herself, there would have been no casualties.
That’s the fireman’s second rule for house fires: Practically everyone can escape from a secondfloor window, either by lowering themselves from the sill with their hands and dropping a few feet to the ground, or by climbing down bed sheets. Get out by the nearest window, even if the stairway was perfectly safe last time you saw it. In a house fire nearly everyone has at least a chance of escape. But there are three kinds of blazes which can usually be expected to create casualty lists. They are:
First—Fires at night, when members of the family do not awaken until the blaze has progressed so far they are either trapped or overcome by smoke.
Second—Fires which occur when children are left alone in a house. (These can be regarded as virtually inexcusable. Children should never be left alone.)
Third—“Flash” fires, which usually occur in kitchens from grease being spilled on the stove, attempts to light fires in a range with coal oil or gasoline, or simila*mishaps. Continued on page 61
Continued on page 61
What To Do in a Fire
Continued from page 12
Christmas tree fires are a particularly tragic example of the “flash” variety. What usually happens is that the mother is badly burned in the first instant and her panic-stricken children are not able to save themselves.
Firemen dread night calls at any time, because when people are asleep fire takes its greatest human toll, but when the call is to a hotel or an apartment building, they admit they have a sick feeling at the pit of their stomachs the moment the alarm comes in.
The occupants of the average house, they reason, have a fair chance of escaping without serious harm. At most there is only a 10or 12foot drop between them and safety. But in a serious fire in a hotel or apartment, unless there aire adequate fire exits the occupants of the upper floors are in a precarious situation.
You have only to look at recent casualty records for evidence. Sixtyone persons died in the LaSalle Hotel fire in Chicago last June; 19 died in the Hotel Canfield, Dubuque, Iowa, three days later; 122 died in the Hotel Winecoff, Atlanta, Ga., on December 7 and 11 died in the three-story Barry Hotel at Saskatoon the following day.
And the bitter irony of it is that many of those victims could not have saved themselves through any action of their own. True, some of those who hurled themselves bodily from upper floors of the 15-story Hotel Winecoff might have been only panic-stricken. But investigators agree that most of them jumped only when their sole choice was between death by fire and destruction on the pavement below. The latter was quicker and preferable.
They die, these hotel fire victims, in many pathetic ways.
Some stumble through corridors, looking for an exit, and run into solid walls of flame that consume them. Some die lingering, agonizing deaths; suffocated by smoke. Some die quietly and easily from carbon monoxide fumes, generated by the fire, which steal over them before they know jt. Some die where there is neither smoke nor fumes, only searing heat. Temperatures rise to such a height that human lungs are literally cooked by the air they breathe.
In a modernly built hotel, with adequate fire safeguards, enough protected fire escapes and sound construction, every occupant has an excellent chance of reaching safety if fire does break out. Unfortunately, there are all too few hotels which answer to this description.
Fire insurance men and those who supervise administration of preventive regulations agree that there are at least five essentials to the safety of hotel guests. They are:
Second—An alarm system which can warn all guests simultaneously
Third—Adequate fire escapes—preferably inside the building.
Fourth—A method of sealing off all elevator shaft openings and stairways from the rest of the building.
Fifth—Installation of automatic fire detection instruments in strategic places (such as hotel lobbies, storage rooms etc.), plus regular patrols by watchmen.
Fireproof construction, of course, is a misnomer, but even at that it is important. The fire insurance companies’ definition of a fireproof building is simply one whose structural members will remain standing even ic the
building itself is burned out. In other words, floors and walls will not collapse under the intense heat of a blaze, and stairways will stand up.
But as.far as the literal meaning of the word goes, experts are satisfied that there is no such thing as a fireproof building. As long as hotels are equipped with drapes, wooden furniture and wood trim, carpets, rugs—even as long as paint and varnish are used on the interior—fire will always be a hazard.
The disastrous blaze that swept the Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta, for instance, started on the third floor of the “fireproof” building. All it had to feed on at the start was a burlap covering which formed a wainscoting on the corridor walls and the wooden doors and trim. Yet it spread across the entire floor in a matter of seconds and raced upstairs and down, involving 10 of the 15 floors before it was extinguished.
The need for a more effective alarm system has been demonstrated in many hotel fires. In the Winecoff, LaSalle and Canfield hotel blazes (biggest life takers in 1946) guests were warned by telephone. The switchboard operator in the LaSalle stayed at her post, calling every guest, room by room, until she herself was overcome by smoke and perished at the switchboard. Other operators were either luckier or less conscientious. Some were driven from their posts before they were able to notify everyone of the fire.
Delay is Dangerous
While fire marshals and inspectors plead for hotels to install electric gongs which can be rung in all sections of the building at once, they also are urgently seeking some way of ensuring that hotel employees report fires to the fire department more promptly. In the LaSalle conflagration, a customer reported having seen a wisp of smoke in the cocktail lounge (where the blaze started) at 12.20 a.m. The alarm was not turned in until 12.35. In the Winecoff disaster, the fire department reached the scene 30 seconds after receiving an alarm at 3.42 a.m. but the underwriters’ report states that the fire had made such headway by then, people were already jumping to their deaths to escape the flames.
Just as hallways and staircases are the biggest hazards in a residential fire, so are they the bane of the hotel fire fighter. The hazard they represent in hotels is even greater than in a home.
Wherever a fire begins, it creates that same combination of warm, expanding air, smoke and gases, all seeking an outlet. Because these gases are lighter than air, they rise until some obstacle, generally a ceiling, contains them. But in big buildings there are usually several passages that extend from cellar to roof. Usually they áre elevator shafts and stairways.
If the shafts are fully enclosed, and the stairways shut off from the main sections of the building by solid doors, fires can be contained with comparative ease. But where there is open grillwork above the elevator doors, or an open staircase', the rising gases immediately seek it out. Once the gases reach one of these natural chimneys, they rise quickly, aided by the expanding pressure behind them. As they rise, they create a vacuum into which more gas and smoke pour.
When there are adequate air vents at the top of the elevator shaft, the smoke and gas will pass right up and out to the open air. When there are no vents, the shaft quickly becomes filled with gases which, still seeking to expand, find their way through cracks in the doors and spread out into the corridors on every floor. What’s more,
the temperature inside the “chimney” rises as hot gases continue to flow through it.
Thé height to which temperatures can soar under these conditions is recorded in the report of a fire in a 20-story Chicago office building. The building itself was fireproof, the stairs were fully enclosed.
Fire broke out in an office on the seventh floor one night—apparently from a neglected cigarette butt. The door leading from the main corrido/ to the stairway on that floor, unfortunately, was open. All other stairway doors were closed, with the exception of one on the 12th floor. There was nothing inflammable in the stairway itself, but the seventh floor blaze generated so much heat before it was discovered that a desk in the 12thfloor corridor, near the stairway, broke into flames and was completely destroyed. Later analysis indicated that the wood of which the desk was made would ignite when the air around it had been heated to 650 degrees Fahrenheit.
In the 22-story LaSalle Hotel, window frames in the elevator shaft were burned out to a height of 19 floors and the paint was burned off both sides of the elevator doors on the two top stories. Smoke and heat discoloration extended out into the corridors right up to the seventeenth floor, although actual fire damage did not extend higher than the sixth.
Escape in the LaSalle blaze was hindered by the fact that the two interior stairways were not only open on every floor (so that all floors were promptly filled with smoke) but terminated in the lobby, where the fire raged most fiercely. Consequently, no one was able to use them to escape, but had to depend entirely on outside fire escapes and firemen’s ladders.
At that, the LaSalle guests were luckier than those in the Hotel Canfield at Dubuque. The Canfield had two exterior fire escapes, but one could not be used because flames issuing from doors and windows on that side of the building enveloped portions of the fire escape. Two men were cremated on the second - floor landing of this outside stairway before the other occupants learned of its hazards.
The Winecoff offered its guests fewer means of exit still. There was only one interior stairway, open on all floors, and no exterior fire escapes.
But even with these serious hazards, evidence indicated that some, at least, of the victims might have lived if they had known what to do when they first learned of the fire.
What would you have done if you had been in one of these hotels when it burned ?
The obvious thing, of course, is to make your way at once to the nearest fire escape. But that course presupposes an earlier duty Did you find out where the fire escapes were when you first entered the hotel?
If you didn’t, it’s too late after the alarm has gone. Making your way through a smoke-filled corridor is hazardous enough, even when you know where you’re going. Wandering aimlessly around the corridors, looking for a red light to guide you, is inviting death by suffocation. And, incidentally, in most hotels you would never find the exit marker once the smoke had begun to accumulate, because they’re usually located over the doors. The heaviest concentration of smoke is always at the ceiling, and in nine cases out of 10 the curtain of smoke is thick enough to blot out the red light from view.
Some fire authorities say every public building should have fire exit lights located on the walls, just a few inches above the floor and illuminated arrows
pointing to them, spaced at intervals throughout corridors, at the same height.
Even if you know where the fire escape is, don’t rush madly into the corridor the moment you hear a fire alarm. Remember Rule One of the fireman’s primer: Feel the door. If it’s hot, you’d better not try to get out.
The inside of a door doesn’t get hot until hot, gaseous fumes have collected in concentrations that are usually too heavy to be borne by human lungs. At such times your room is a much safer place than the hotel corridor.
When You’re Trapped
If you’re trapped like this, or if you don’t know where the fire escape is, your only alternative requires a lot of fortitude and patience, but it’s highly recommended. It’s simply this: shut your door and make sure the transom is closed, too. If smoke is not issuing too heavily from windows directly below yours, open your window to let the smoke out and the cool air in. Keep your head out the window so you can breathe fresh air and, at the same time, attract attention.
If your room isn’t too far above the street, you may be able to knot enough bedclothes together to make an escape rope. If the distance is too great for that, wait for the firemen. It’s a race between them and death, but they have a good chance of winning it as a rule. In the Barry Hotel in Saskatoon, one man rescued by firemen was calmly reading a newspaper when they found him. It contained an account of the Winecoff fire of the day before and he had read in it that many of the occupants might have been saved if they had stayed in their rooms. So he had followed that timely advice.
A hotel room with the door shut can hold out the bulk of fumes and gases for a long time and still be livable. But if your transom or door is open even a crack, suffocation will follow in a very few tninutes. If smoke can be seen coming through any small aperture, stuff the crack with towels or clothing, and prop the bed mattress against the door. If there is a suitable vessel in the room, it won’t do any harm to douse door, mattress and all liberally with water. It will keep the heat down and may keep the door from breaking into flames.
When your room begins to fill with smoke in spite of everything you are doing, then is the time to get your head out the open window. If you can’t reach a window, or if there is so much smoke coming from that side of the building that you don’t dare to open it, the next best thing is to lie on the floor. Smoke rises and the oxygen in the room will be close to the floor. Holding a wet handkerchief in front of your mouth may help to filter some of the smoke and also to reduce the temperature of the air you are breathing. And then, about all you can do is wait—for a ladder to be put up to your window or firemen wearing smoke masks to come down the hallway. When you hear them, pound on your door to let them know you’re alive.
And that, in the final analysis, is about all you can do in a hotel fire. The biggest steps toward assuring your own safety should be taken before you register. They would include choosing a modern, fire-resistant building if one is available and finding out exactly what facilities it offers for quick exit.
Next step—one that has long been preached, but rarely practiced—is to find out the exact location of the fire escape nearest your room. Don’t be satisfied merely to look for the red “exit” light. Walk from your room to the fire escape, noting any turns you
have to make en route. If it’s a tricky course, go over it again. When the corridors are filled with smoke, you have no time for guessing.
Hotels, of course, are not the only public buildings whose fire exits you should learn. It’s equally important in your office building, although here the problem isn’t as urgent. If you’ve had your office in the same building for any length of time, you’ve probably absorbed that information almost subconsciously, as you’ve grown familiar with the layout of your floor.
That’s one reason why fires in office buildings rarely cause casualties. Most occupants know the safest way out. Another reason is that only rarely are people asleep in office buildings and so they are aware of the danger much more quickly than sleeping hotel guests.
Firemen will tell you your first duty on discovering a fire in an office building is to sound an alarm. If the building has an alarm system and you know how to operate it, do so. If not, a lusty shout of “FIRE!” will serve the same purpose. Whether you stay and try to put the fire out or run at once will depend, first, on how large the blaze is when you discover it and, second, your own conscience. But if the situation looks at all serious, by far the most sensible thing to do is to leave it to the fire department.
Sounding an alarm is even more vital if it is your summer cottage or a resort hotel that is on fire. Summer resorts— particularly the small, woodsy ones that we Canadians like—are notoriously ill-equipped to fight fires.
If there’s a lake or river handy (as there usually is) and some sort of pumping equipment (much more rare), volunteer fire brigades, made up of the people most directly concerned and anyone else who’s handy, can sometimes put a fire out. Usually, though, a summer home or a summer hotel is doomed the moment the fire takes hold.
Flimsy summer buildings burn like tinder and it is not unusual for a building to be enveloped in flames two or three minutes after the blaze is first discovered. That’s why a shouted warning is imperative: first, to give other occupants a chance and, second, to warn those in adjacent buildings. Given a mildly stiff breeze, fire in a summer resort can lick up half a dozen buildings in about as much time as it has taken you to read this article.
The old army “fire order” holds good in summer resort fires. The sequence of action to be taken by anyone discovering a fire in an army camp is something like this:
1. Shout “FIRE!”
2. Start fighting the blaze immediately, with any equipment you have.
3. If you’re in the building and the fire shows any signs of getting ahead of you, get out—quick.
4. Concentrate on saving surrounding buildings. ★