What to know now, when it matters

Escaping a burning home: House fire survivor shares the lessons she learned

Escaping a burning home: House fire survivor shares the lessons she learned

October 27, 2006|by JULIE E. GREENE

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Janice Hammondawoke at 1:30 a.m. Christmas 2004 to find flames about three feet from her head.

Autopilot kicked in, said Hammond, who had fallen asleep on the sofa with her 19-month-old son watching "A Christmas Story."

Hammond got up and turned to the kitchen door, thinking she'd grab the fire extinguisher out of a kitchen cabinet to put out the fire. At the doorway, the single mother realized the fire was too great at that point and grabbed her sleeping son and headed to the front door.

A chain lock that had given her trouble before forced her to go down the hallway to her bedroom, where she ripped the blinds away from a window and unlocked it. She dropped her son the short distance to the ground and dove out head first.

Getting out is the first thing people should do when they realize their house is on fire, says Mike Weller, fire prevention officer with the Hagerstown Fire Department.


The only type of fire people might want to try putting out is a grease fire that is contained to a pot, Weller said. And that's only if they can quickly get a lid on the pot or use a multipurpose fire extinguisher to put out the flames before they spread.

Once the fire is out of the pot, it can spread quickly.

Homes are full of combustible materials, from upholstered furniture to paper clutter to construction and decorating materials.

During the last 18 days there have been two fires in Hagerstown in which the residents had ripped out smoke alarms, Weller says. In one case, that delayed the resident's reaction to the fire.

This Sunday, and again in the spring, is daylight-saving time - a good time to remember to replace the batteries in smoke alarms.

This time of year also tends to result in more structure fires as it gets colder and people stay inside - cooking more and using portable heaters, Weller says.

The most important thing if your house catches on fire is to get out, and don't go in your neighbor's house if it catches on fire, Weller says.

That can be difficult, especially if you know there is a loved one elsewhere in the house, Weller said. That's why it's important to take preventative measures, such as working smoke alarms, and to have the family rehearse escape plans from every room in the house.

With an adequate number of working smoke alarms, conditions are much less likely to result in someone getting trapped, Weller said.

The dangers in going after someone in the house are that smoke can quickly overcome people, and fire spreads rapidly, Weller says.

Lessons learned

Hammond, 35, had one smoke alarm in her home west of Chambersburg, but she does not know for certain whether the battery was working or whether the flames melted the alarm in the kitchen before it could wake her up.

She doesn't know what woke her up.

But having survived the experience, she made sure to equip her new home - built where her old one stood - with safety devices, and she has an escape plan from every room.

Hammond says she has more smoke alarms than the housing code requires because she is a bit paranoid after the electrical fire.

She has two smoke alarms in each bedroom, as well as alarms in other rooms. She has a heat sensor in the kitchen and carbon monoxide detectors in the main house and basement. At least one smoke alarm in each room plus the heat sensor are hooked to a central alarm system that would alert her alarm company, and she has a bypass button to notify 911 directly.

She gave her fire extinguishers to her neighboring tenants and plans to buy additional ones for her own house.

The new house was designed with wider doorways and windows for easier escape.

Hammond said she thought she did the right thing, getting out as soon as she saw the fire was too big to fight and running to a neighbor - a volunteer firefighter - to notify 911.

Lasting effects

A fire poses not only a health risk, but can have lasting economic effects.

Some people become homeless afterward because they had no home insurance, while others face inconveniences such as having to drive their child further to school because their new residence is in another school district, he said.

Then there are all the material matters.

The only material things Hammond has from her home are the clothes she and her son were wearing and some photos the firefighters were able to save.

She recommends people know their insurance policy and take an inventory, by video if they can, of their belongings and keep it in a fireproof safe. This will help with insurance claims if there is a fire.

Hammond considers herself lucky because she was able to go back to work at Chambersburg Hospital, where she is a staffing coordinator in the nursing office, a month after the fire - thanks to help from her parents, Bill and June Hammond.

Tips for surviving if you are in a house fire

1. If it's a grease fire contained to a pot, you have 30 seconds to extinguish it with a lid or multipurpose fire extinguisher. Red fire extinguishers tend to be multipurpose, but check to see what yours says.

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