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Fire Safety Week - Surviving A Fire

Monday, 1 October 2007

It's Fire Safety week from 1st to 8th October, It is a nationwide campaign run in cooperation with Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Services and today we want to raise awareness about the dangers of fires and the importance of adopting a fire escape strategy in the home.

The Night of the Fire
It all happened in Athlone two days after Christmas on 27th December 2005. After celebrating a wonderful Christmas day Niall and Maeve went to bed at about 1.00am. They fell fast asleep and about 3.30am they woke up to the smoke alarms screaming. Their initial thoughts were that it was a false alarm so Niall went down stairs to investigate as he was going down the stair he smelt a bit of smoke but nothing major. All the doors were closed as he always had a habit of doing that at night but when he opened the sitting room door he heard the fire crackling and could feel the heat on his face and he knew straight away his house was on fire.

Niall closed the door behind him again and beside him was the front door so he left that and ran up the stairs shouting that the house was on fire. Maeve got up out of bed and as their bedroom is directly above the sitting room she could feel the heat on her feet. The adrenaline took over and they needed to set their fire safety plan in action. Because the front door was available he told Maeve to grab the two kids who were with them in the room baby Orianna (8 months old) and Dean who had woken up during the night (3) and run down stairs and out the door. Niall then ran into the boys room Arron (8) and Kyle (6) shouting "get up the house is on fire" and the lads jumped out of the bed hearing the panic in their dad's voice.

Niall brought the two lads to the top of the stairs and Maeve was at the bottom lying on the ground so she could see the boys and breath, although it was less that a minute since he had realised there was a fire the hall was covered in smoke by this stage. Maeve shouted to the boys and they went down to her and out. In the mean time Niall went into Katie's room to get her and by this stage he had to feel for her in the cot as it was very smokey. When he got outside he closed the door behind him a habit he can't shake and as they were walking down the path the front window exploded and flames came roaring out.

Niall says once they were all out he kept counting heads to make sure everyone was there and then he ran to neighbours houses knocking frantically on their doors. Within five minutes from seeing the fire and getting out of the house by now the upstairs was in flames and the windows had smashed there too. His elderly neighbours in their 70's were on one side and a young family on the other so he needed to get them out because they were terraced houses.

He remembers the terrifying noise of the crackles and smashes inside as everything they owned in the world went up in flames they stood watching thinking how they had just been in there and they so easily still could be. Niall says he watched as the house burnt wondering where the fire brigade was he remembers thinking the house was burning to the ground and they still weren't there he thinks they took about 20 mins but he doesn't speak bad of them he just says it felt like ages. By the time the fire brigade came Niall thought they would put the fire straight out and anything left unburned would be saved but it took the fire fighters three hours to put the flames out.

At 6.30am they were up on the roof still trying to get the smoke out. Niall kept coming up and down form his neighbours house to see how they were doing but at this stage his heart was broken, everything was gone.

The kids were hysterical they didn't know what was happening and Maeve and Orianna were brought to hospital for smoke inhalation. He also had bad smoke inhalation and when he went to visit Maeve later she insisted he get oxygen too.

To this day they still don't know how the fire was caused. They say it started in the middle of the floor where all the presents were scattered around, it wasn't the Christmas tree lights, it wasn't started deliberately an it wasn't electrical so it is still a complete mystery. This he says makes it that little bit harder to cope with as they don't know why it happened so cant prevent it form happening again. They say they just need to be careful all the time even though he was always careful about switching things off and closing doors behind him he thinks his pre planned escape route and the thought he had put into it helped him deal with the escape more calmly than if he never thought about it before.

Niall and his sister had always had a fear of house fires ever since they were kids and although he doesn't know where it stemmed from every time he walked into a new house even before he had kids he would plan an escape route for every scenario in case of a fire. He checked his smoke alarms sometimes twice a week even going as far as putting a cigarette up to it to check if it detected smoke and he believes that his vigilance paid off in keeping his family alive.

Their Escape Plan
Niall had thought about every scenario in case of a fire and because the fire was in the sitting room the front door was free to use. If the Front door was blocked they had another escape route planned out and would use the back window upstairs beside the in the boys room as this had big windows you could get out of and it had a flat roof from an extension. He never locked these windows just in case. He always thought about where the fire would start and would have an alternative route for that.

He thanks to god he had a fire alarm but he says that it gives you very little time to get out so you need to have your wits about you and know what you are going to do before it happens otherwise you won't get out alive two minutes is all it took form the time the smoke alarm went out to the time the house was covered in smoke and became a flame inferno.

After the Fire
Needless to say nothing was saved and it was a devastating time for them especially at the time of year it was. Although Christmas is a struggle at the best of times with five kids this year they had splashed out and their hearts were broken for the kids who had no toys left.

One police officer told Niall he would come back the next day and get a list of essential things they needed and a list of the toys the kids got for xmas and the next day they came down with a Garda van full of toys, everything that santa had sent them and more. They told the kids that Santa heard what happened and got the guards to sort it out.

Niall says the generosity of people was enormous and he couldn't believe the amount of good people that came out of the woodwork. A fund was set up for them and that raised thousands of pounds for them including a €3,000 donation form Niall's place of work which was a section of the Department of Environment.  They stayed with Niall's sister for a week and then moved into private accommodation and then they were placed in a house close to their old home so the kids could get back to normal. The council done their old house up and offered it back to them but they couldn't live there again as they have too many memories of the night. Although they aren't hugely affected by the trauma they would never live in a two story house again as they want an easy escape out the window and onto the ground. They are also still very careful about switching things off and say you can never be too careful.

Now the whole family are very happy and they are waiting to move into their dream home. Niall says they still think about it every day and no amount of material things could compensate for the fact that they all got out alive and well and even the kids say that now they don't care about their things once they are all safe. Katie who was three at the time was the most traumatised by the experience but she is doing great now. For about 6 months after the incident she would get hysterical if her mam or dad left her side but now once she gets a kiss and a love she is grand if she doesn't get that she panics and thinks they are not coming back.

Now they remind themselves everyday how lucky they are and they have their priorities right for the family. One thing Niall says is hard to live with is the loss of that sense of security in your own home. Before you would take for granted that you could close your door to the world and be safe in your own home but he lost that the night his house went up in flames.


Statistics on Fatalities

Average Annual Fatalities - 46 (6 under 14)
Average Domestic Fires - 11,488




Largest grouping over 65's
Including over 45's makes approx. 2/3 of all fatalities!

64% Male 
36% Female

In what part of the country are they dying?
Over a 9 year period (1997 - 2005) 406 fatalities:
Most deaths per county -   
Dublin  111
Cork County  35
Kerry   28
Mayo   21
Galway 18
Cork City 14
Kildare 14

Most common type of dwelling in fires with fatalities
House  2 or more floors 69.95%
Apartment/Flat  10.68%
Caravan   4.76%
Bungalow/Cottage  4.22%
In fires involving fatalities in what room does the fire start?
Bedroom   29.5%
Livingroom   26.1%
Kitchen   18.6%

What is causing the fire when fatalities are involved?
Smoking   14.33% 
Electricity   9.83%
Heating Appliances  8.15%
Note: In 44.1% of fires involving fatalities the reported cause is reported as "Unknown"!

What time of the day are these fires happening?

Between 20.00 and 08.00  60.1%
Between 08.00 and 20.00 39.9%

Why are they not escaping?
No Warning
Unable to wake up (Alcohol, Medication, Drug Abuse, etc.)
Overcome by smoke
(Toxic - Narcotic - Irritant - Oxygen Deficiency)
Non Ambulant
Re-entry (Rescue of persons or retrieval of items)
Other Reasons!

Smoke Alarms?
The presence of Smoke Alarms in fires involving fatalities could only be established in 10.2% of cases.

Fire Prevention
By far the best way to be safe from a fire is not to allow one to start. Awareness of the causes of fire and a relevant change in behaviour will greatly reduce the incidents of fire for example:
*Care when smoking - always empty ashtrays before going to bed and ensure that the contents of the ashtray are completely cold before putting them in an outside bin, never smoke when tired or after taking sleeping medication or alcohol and never smoke in bed.
*Never leave matches or lighters around children
*Care when using candles - proper holders, never leave unattended particularly where pets or animals are present, extra caution when using them in the bedroom or bathroom.
*Care when cooking - never leave pots or pans unattended while cooking as it is easy to become distracted, keep the cooking area clear of grease, etc., and take extreme care when using chip pans, (thermostatically controlled deep fat fryers are safer!)
*Always get a qualified electrician to do electrical work - never overload electrical sockets, have old or faulty electrical appliances repaired by a qualified person or replaced.

Early Detection
To ensure that you have any chance of surviving a fire you must get the earliest possible warning - every second counts! Make sure that you have sufficient, working smoke alarms installed in your home, and make sure that they are tested every week!

Safe Evacuation
The worst time to try to decide how to evacuate your home is during a fire when it is difficult to concentrate because of fear, stress, smoke, heat, etc., so it is essential that you design an Evacuation Plan for your home before the fire and practice it regularly. The purpose of the plan is to ensure that all occupants leave the house and go to a pre-determined meeting place outside of the home in the quickest and safest manner. Include all occupants of your home when making the plan and make sure that everyone knows exactly what to do. Make it a kind of game when including children.

You must identify the quickest way out of the home, usually the front door, and call it your primary exit. Then identify the next best way out of the home if the primary exit is blocked, this is known as the secondary exit, usually the back door or maybe a bedroom window. Then identify a "safe refuge", this is a room where you should stay if both your primary exit and your secondary exit is blocked.

This room should ideally have a window and a phone to call for help and if possible a torch. Make it safer by placing blankets or towels across the bottom of the door to keep the smoke out then go to the window and call for help, as this is the best route to be rescued. If possible set off the house alarm by banging on the window to make as much noise as possible and wake the neighbours!

Include the following three parts of the evacuation plan:

The smoke alarm goes off and everyone goes out the primary exit.
The smoke alarm goes off but the primary exit is blocked so everyone goes out the secondary exit.
The smoke alarm goes off but both the primary exit and the secondary exit is blocked so you go to the prearranged safe refuge and wait by the window to be rescued.

Night-time safety check
Many people are so concerned about keeping out the burglar that they lock up their home so tight that they could find it difficult to escape from the home in the event of a fire! To help prevent a fire at night and to ensure that you can escape if necessary you should include a night-time safety check of your home.

. A night-time safety check is a systematic tour around your home to eliminate any possible sources of fire and to ensure that, should the need arise, you will be able to escape in the least amount of time. It should include ensuring that:
. All unnecessary electrical appliances are unplugged.
. All candles are properly extinguished.
. Spark guards and fireguards are placed in front of open fires.
. All doors in the home are closed to reduce the spread of fire!
. All escape routes are clear of obstructions.
. Where keys are needed to open doors that they are in the locks to avoid wasting time and breath looking for them.
. You have a phone and if possible a torch in your room.