A Firefighter's Perspective on Home Survival

When Mike Piccione approached me to write an article on home survival, my first thought was fire safety as I am a professional firefighter. Perhaps my advice and real-world experiences can not only help prevent a fire, but help your family survive in the event that your house does catch on fire.


Smoke detectors: I have never responded to a fatal house fire that had functioning smoke detectors. However, I have been to house fires where smoke detectors were so melted that they were barely recognizable, but its alarm was still functioning. New houses typically come with smoke detectors that are linked together – when one detector is triggered, all go off. But unless you live in a mansion, you should be able to hear your detector’s alarm, so the individual battery-powered detectors are just fine.

In my experience, there isn’t really one detector that is better than another. But location of your smoke detectors makes all the difference. Ensure that you have detectors in each bedroom, hallway, and at the top of staircases. If detectors are installed too close to heat sources like fireplaces, stoves, smoking areas, or air vents, the fumes can trigger false alarms and buildup from repeated exposure can eventually cause the detector to fail. If you have old smoke detectors, it would be a good idea to purchase new ones as the detector’s element can fail over time.

Many homes have smoke detectors in the proper places, but the detector does you no good if its batteries are dead. A simple rule of thumb is to change your detector’s batteries when you change your clocks for daylight savings time. Don’t depend on the detector to beep at you when the batteries need to be changed – count on technology to fail! While you may be thinking that batteries are expensive (as I do), I have worked fire-related fatalities that could have been prevented for $2 worth of batteries. Simply keep your used detector batteries for use in alarm clocks and childrens’ toys, and you won’t even notice.


Carbon monoxide (CO) detector: CO is known as the “silent killer” as it is a colorless, odorless gas. CO is produced whenever there is incomplete combustion – such as vehicles running in the garage, gas appliances, cooking, and fireplaces. CO poisoning initially resembles flu-like symptoms: dizziness, nausea, light-headedness, and headaches. Since your bloodstream absorbs CO far more easier than oxygen, prolonged exposure can cause you to pass out, and you will die if levels are high enough.

Like smoke detectors, CO detectors should be placed near sleeping areas, and not too close to appliances.

Fire protection: Fire extinguishers are quite effective, provided they are charged and that you can easily find them. In my home, I keep one in the kitchen and one in the garage.

Residential sprinkler systems are relatively new to the fire service. A recent experiment in my city showed that a sprinkler system can be very effective: In two similarly-built structures with similar contents, the damage to the house with the sprinkler system was contained to the sofa where the fire started. For the house with no protection, the fire department arrived in a matter of minutes, but the structure was a total loss.

Evacuation plan: Firefighters spend quite a bit of time talking with children at school about fire safety. We find that most children know to call 9-1-1, how to stop-drop-and-roll, and have detectors in their house, but families rarely have an evacuation plan in case of an emergency. Families should have a set meeting place, such as a tree or a neighbor’s house. Try your drill to ensure that your plan works, and that everyone knows what to do in the case of a real emergency. Also, ensure that your children know their address and phone number. 9-1-1 only works if the dispatcher knows where to send the responders.


If you turn a room into a bedroom, ensure that there is more than one way out. Some basement windows appear to be a valid egress point, but smoke and heat can make escape impossible.

Smoke and heat rise in a fire. Therefore, crawling is the best way to safely exit the building with deadly smoke and intense temperatures. While running seems natural, consider that not only could you be incapacitated by smoke; temperatures can be several hundred degrees just a few feet from the floor while the air is breathable close to the floor.

Remember to check doors before opening them – use the back of your hand to check whether the door is hot. If it is, consider another route. If you cannot safely exit, close the door and stuff clothing or wet towels under the door. This keeps a surprising amount of smoke out of the room. If you can, try to exit through a window. If you live on the second story, escape ladders are a good idea, and can be easily stored under your bed.

Candles, smoking, cooking and overloaded circuits: These fires account for nearly every fire that I have fought apart from arson, and these all can be prevented by simply using common sense.

If you smoke in your house, dispose of your cigarettes properly – I have fought many fires where still-smoldering cigarette butts set trash cans on fire, which inevitably spreads to the entire structure. Often, smokers fall asleep and their lit cigarette would set the couch or mattress on fire. Sometimes, the CO and other deadly gasses would kill the smoker before they could wake up.


Almost every Christmas, some unfortunate family looses everything due to overloaded circuits due to their Christmas tree. Use common sense – if the outlet near your tree resembles the outlet from the movie A Christmas Story, then you should reconsider your wiring arrangement.

There is nothing wrong with burning candles in your house – just be very cautious about the candle’s surroundings. Never leave candles burning unattended, especially if children or pets are present. And never burn candles near curtains.

If you have a grease fire while cooking, don’t panic! The easiest thing to do is to remove the pan from the hot element and cover it with a lid to smother the flames. Baking soda, a cookie sheet, or even your fire extinguisher will also do the trick. But avoid the temptation to play fireman with your sink’s hose – the water will only cause the contents to spatter, thus spreading the flames. I have seen many house fires where you can see that the family tried to use the nozzle, but the kitchen – or house – is a total loss.

Fire safe: While having a fire safe isn’t necessary for survival, it is crucial to preserve your most important documents if you do have a fire, as temperatures can reach over a thousand degrees. Some gun safes are fire-rated as well.

I have experienced first-hand the deadly results of these simple mistakes, which were all easily preventable. If you take action, your family won’t have similar results. If you have any questions, please visit your local fire department – they will be glad you stopped by!


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