Earlier this year on a cool Arkansas morning, I was driving north toward the airport in Branson, Missouri. At 6:00 on a Sunday there were few cars on the road and I was enjoying the scenery.
As I approached Rogers, Arkansas, I noticed what I first thought was smoke coming from a fire, and my first thought was, “How nice to be cuddled up next to a fireplace on a morning like this!” Just a few seconds later I realized that this was no ordinary plume of black smoke coming from a chimney but a full-on attic fire.
Quickly, I pulled over to the side of the road and dialed 911. The call was answered on the second ring and I described what I saw.
“There is a house fire on the west side of Highway 62. It’s a dark gray, two-story home, and I see bright orange flames in the attic and smoke coming from the roof.”
I described my location and gave the nearest exit number, but after conferring with others in her office, the 911 operator informed me that she would have to transfer me to the Bentonville 911 operator.
The call was transferred and I once again told my story in detail. I said, “I am sitting here on the side of the road watching flames shoot out of the attic of a home.”
Incredibly, I didn’t see a single person outside the home or along the street. It was 6:20 or so by this time, and whoever was in that house was still sleeping.
Several minutes went by as the 911 operator questioned me again and again, and she finally said, “You’re in Rogers. We’re going to transfer you to them.”
Really?? Three 911 operators and there was still not a single fire truck on its way!
I told my story to the third operator. I described my location, the highway number, the exit number, and was told, “We don’t see any fire. Tell me again where you are.”
By this time, orange flames had punched numerous holes through the roof of that house, and it’s doubtful it could have been saved. Amazingly, not a single neighbor had come outside after smelling the smoke although the house was on a residential street facing the highway.
Around 6:30, I got back on the road, thoroughly frustrated.
Here’s the clincher: just a few hundred yards north of where I had parked and observed the burning house, I noticed a large tan building on the left side of the road with a sign that read, “City of Rogers Fire Station.” If the firefighters inside that building had been alerted and had just stepped outside, they would have seen the same black smoke that I witnessed.
I have no idea what happened to that house or whether or not anyone was inside.
This incident made me wonder how prepared my own family is for the type of emergency that usually brings first responders within a matter of minutes. Too often we get caught up in the worst of worst case scenarios and don’t make plans for something as, “ordinary”, as a house fire. Here’s a checklist to help you get ready for this, “everyday emergency.”
- Does your home have enough smoke alarms and are the batteries charged? Make sure you have enough alarms installed throughout your home.
- Gather the kids around a smoke alarm and activate the test button. They should know what the alarm sounds like and understand that it’s set off by a sensor that can detect smoke.
- Do your kids know the signs of a house fire? They might think a house has to be fully engulfed in flames in order to, “be on fire.”
- Spending some time around a fewsafe campfires will teach kids what smoke smells like. This is a good opportunity to chat for a couple of minutes about smoke being a sign of a house fire. “Where there’s smoke there’s fire,” isn’t just an idiom. It’s a good safety rule.
- Kids need to understand that smoke presents the most urgent danger. Most fire deaths are a result of smoke inhalation, not burns. They should understand that smoke rises and the freshest air will be close to the floor.
- Every member of your family should know how to get outside from every room of the house. Do the kids know how to unlatch and open every window? Do they know to get out immediately from whatever room they happen to be in?
- Review a fire exit plan in a family meeting. Everyone should practice opening windows and even crawling to an exit. If the kids are willing, blindfold them for a more realistic experience.
- If a family member is disabled or very young, assign an older child or adult to help them in both a fire drill and in evacuating in case of a fire.
- Establish a single meeting place outdoors.
- If there isn’t a chance to call 911 from inside your home, assign someone ahead of time to make the call either from a cell phone, if they have it with them, or from a neighbor’s house.
- It will be a child’s natural instinct to want to rescue a family member, a pet, or a beloved toy. Impress upon them that once they are out of a burning building, they are to never go back inside no matter what.
- If you can safely rescue your pet(s), don’t leave them behind! I have heard that dogs will bolt when frightened, but cats will hide. If you know your cat’s favorite hiding places, check them out if there’s time before you evacuate.
- Include pet evacuations in your fire drills.
- Call your nearest fire house and ask about pet rescue stickers for windows. Sometimes they’re available for free.
- Have your emergency kits, aka Bug Out Bags, packed and ready near a convenient exterior door. Depending on circumstances, you may not be able to access them, but it’s better to have them ready to go than leave a burning house with nothing but the clothes on your back.
- Prepare in advance for a house fire by gathering together important papers and storing them either in a fireproof safe or in another secure location. I do not recommend the use of safe deposit boxes, ever.
- Visit the website of National Fire Protection Association for more tips and downloads.
I was worried about the family living in that burning house and several days later I contacted the Rogers Fire Department. I was told that I had to file a Freedom of Information Act request before I could be told whether or not there had been a house fire that day!
One reason these plans and precautions are important is because towns and cities of every size are experiencing major budget crunches. Some have made the decision to charge homeowners for the services of a fire department! Budget woes are only going to get worse and first responders may not be as readily available as they are now.
In addition to other survival scenarios that you’ve planned for, be sure to include the ordinary, but deadly and devastating, house fire.
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