Deadly mistakes: How to survive a house fire

Published: Dec. 6, 2018 at 12:29 PM EST
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(12/06/18) - When it comes to surviving a house fire too many people are making deadly mistakes.

"People think they have more time to get out of a burning building than they do," said State Fire Marshal Kevin Sehlmeyer with the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, Bureau of Fire Services.

In Michigan this year at least 114 people have died in fires.

Most recently in Mid-Michigan a 55-year-old Saginaw man lost his life in a fire on the Monday night before Thanksgiving.

Back on Nov. 1 firefighters in Bay County's Garfield Township were called to a home on West Newburg Road just west of North Carter Road where two men died.

Sehlmeyer, firefighters and members of the Community Risk Reduction Task Force are working to prevent tragedy as they focus on education.

Sehlmeyer has heard of too many stories like one he shared with us from Marquette. "They found the boyfriend right by the front door, he was clearly trying to leave, and they found her upstairs actually in a bathroom. It appears she had tried to leave out of the bedroom, maybe got disoriented and ended up back in the bathroom," he said.

Fire deaths are difficult on family members, friends, and firefighters.

"It really takes a toll. We think about what could we have done different. Could we have gotten there quicker, could we, should we, what can we do to prevent this from happening again," said Saginaw Fire Marshal Ralph Martin when we interviewed him the day after November's deadly fire in the 600 block of S. Warren Ave. in late November.

Sehlmeyer said firefighters are noticing some trends in 2018. "We're seeing larger loss of life, as in multiple fatalities, but they also don't have working smoke alarms."

Not having a working smoke detector is one deadly mistake people are making.

Even people who regularly change their smoke alarm batteries might be in danger.

Sehlmeyer explains why. "They have smoke alarms, they keep changing the nine volt battery, but actually the sensors over time aren't as sensitive."

After 10 years toss it and get a new one Sehlmeyer said, preferably with a lithium ion battery.

Another scary thought: researchers have asked people what the chirping sound coming from a smoke detectors means.

"The majority come back with it means it's working," Sehlmeyer said. "Quite the opposite."

Chirping means the battery needs changed or it's failing.

Smoke detectors also emit louder beeps when you push the button. That beep means it is working.

Experts suggest pushing the button once a month.

But fire safety goes beyond smoke detectors.

"It's not just smoke alarms. Smoke alarms are not going to reduce the number of fire fatalities in this state. It's going to be behavioral changes," Sehlmeyer said.

We are creatures of habit. Every day we come and go through a door. But trying to go through that same door during a fire could be another deadly mistake.

"You want to increase your survivability? It's most likely to end up in a bedroom, then close the door, keep the fire from being able to come through that area, and then getting to a window, and either climbing out or waiting for the fire department to rescue you," Sehlmeyer said.

Sehlmeyer also said sleeping with your bedroom door open can be a deadly mistake.

He showed us a video from the United Laboratories Fire Safety Research Institute which demonstrates the difference in a bedroom with the door open and a door shut during a fire. Click on the 'Related Link' with this story to watch the full video.

"Just putting that door between you and the fire is just amazing. And then what happens when you open the window, any smoke that accumulated in that room starts to clear out some," Sehlmeyer said.

Sehlmeyer showed us another eye-opening video demonstrating one of the reasons more people are dying.

He said a lot has changed in a few decades inside our homes.

"You of had up to 20 minutes before the house went to flashover," Sehlmeyer said about fires a few decades ago. "Today in fires that have the exact same furniture configuration, flashover is occurring in less than three minutes."

The reason there's less time to escape is our home furnishings, they're made out of different materials, including plastic.

"When it starts to burn, gives off a lot of toxic smoke and gas, but it also produces heat that has never been produced before," Sehlmeyer said.

Newer furniture burns quicker and deadlier. "Think about it, the stuff's that coming off of the plastic is actually poisoning you as the oxygen levels are dropping," Sehlmeyer explained.

When the fire is burning it's a competition for oxygen between you and the fire. If you don't get out of the nearest exit as soon as possible you'll lose long before the flames reach you. "At a certain point you'll go unconscious," Sehlmeyer said.

Another deadly mistake people make is not practicing their escape plan.

Sehlmeyer said everyone needs to do a home fire drill twice a year. "Actually run these drills where you can't use your doors. That changes the game for a lot of families," he said.

Educating people about the updated fire safety information can be challenging.

Fire drills are taught to kids in school. Children take that information home to their parents, but there's an entire age group that misses out.

"Adults don't get that education, so we bank on that when we go in the house, it's an opportunity for fire safety," said Lt. Aileen Pettinger with the Saginaw Fire Department.

Pettinger, who is part of the Community Risk Reduction Task Force with Saginaw Fire Chief Chris Van Loo, is working with her department and the task force to reach those people.

Annie Brown of Saginaw is part of their target audience. "I prefer the professionals. I might do something wrong," Brown said.

The 75-year-old took advantage of the fire department's program which installs free carbon monoxide detectors in city homes, as well as smoke detectors.

"Many of them are alone, many of them don't have the ability to get up high to change out the batteries, and that's what we're starting to see some trends too," Sehlmeyer said.

Sehlmeyer said many of the 2017 fire deaths involved people aged 50 and above.

As departments like Saginaw work to install the live-saving devices in homes, firefighters are taking the opportunity to do more.

"We know that we can prevent a lot of fires just by getting into folks' houses, and we're just going to make suggestions," Sehlmeyer said.

"Make sure nothing's too close to the water heater, furnace, make sure no exits are blocked. Check all the smoke alarms, if they need the smoke alarms we put them in," Pettinger said.

Sehlmeyer said pride keeps many seniors from asking for the free help.

But Brown said making the call was easy.

"Security really, cause I have the grandkids that come around too," Brow said. "Well the firemen was awesome, they did the job quick and in a hurry, and got on out."

Sehlmeyer said his office continues to roll out educational efforts aimed at reduce loss of life. "If we're going to change the number of fire fatalities in the state of Michigan it's going to be through education," he said.

Click on the 'Related Links' with this story to learn more about fire safety.