Child care programs, preschools, and schools are required to have regular fire exit drills. Too often, however, these drills are rehearsed evacuations with insufficient information or training given on how to react to a true fire emergency. For example, many adults do not realize that in a fire emergency, the facility can be completely engulfed in smoke and flames. The air temperature can exceed 600 degrees Fahrenheit at adult head level, making it impossible to walk out of the building, and dense, black smoke can eliminate visibility of emergency lighting or exit lights. In conditions such as these, the practiced “line up and walk out quickly” exit plan rarely works.
How can you prepare children and staff for a true fire emergency? The best preparation is to prevent a fire from occurring. Most structural fires can be prevented through staff awareness and attention to safety considerations. All staff, including managers, teachers, and maintenance and food service professionals, have important roles in maintaining a safe environment.
Maintaining a Safe Environment
All programs, for example, should have regular and thorough inspections of the facility. Your community fire marshal can identify and provide recommendations to remove most hazards. Structural considerations such as approved fire walls and doors, panic bars on doors, and two exits from every location can prevent injury and death in case of fire.
Local utility companies also perform inspections of electrical, gas, and other utility equipment, and they can ensure that all equipment is properly installed and maintained. Structural fires are often linked to faulty electrical equipment.
In addition to inspections, your local fire department can provide fire safety training for staff. All staff should be aware of potential hazards, especially in the area of the facility where they work. Food service staff, for example, should be conscious of safe cooking practices. Flash fires can start easily from overheated grease or oil. Combustible materials, such as potholders or paper towels, should be stored away from heat sources. In the event of a kitchen fire, the staff should know to sound the alarm and get all children out of the facility. If it is a contained fire, such as in a skillet, staff may be trained to lessen the danger by having tight-fitting lids accessible when cooking, or a large box of baking soda to pour on the flames. Your fire marshal may also recommend placing fire extinguishers in the kitchen.
Storage areas, like the kitchen, also present possible fire hazards. Check all storage areas for combustible and flammable materials. Combustible materials are those that can burn, such as paper and wood. These should be stored away from heat sources (such as the pilot light on a hot water heater). Flammable materials are those that can ignite explosively, such as gasoline, petroleum products, and paint products. These materials should be properly stored outside the facility in a separate storage building.
Exiting in Case of Fire
Here are some ways to increase the ability to escape without injury:
· Properly place and maintain smoke detectors throughout the facility.
· Be sure all staff members know “two ways out” from every location in the building. Post exit routes in each room.
· Maintain clear exit paths through halls or stairwells.
· Install emergency lighting.
· Assure that all exit doors are unlocked from the inside and will open readily if needed.
Practice evacuation drills regularly with children, staff, and volunteers. Everyone should be able to hear and recognize the sound (and/or sight) of the fire alarm. Encourage staff to practice alternate exit routes with children. Have a plan and equipment accessible for quick exit with young children. Infants and toddlers can be placed in a rolling crib, covered with a fire blanket, and evacuated. Preschoolers can practice exiting in case of heat, smoke, and low visibility by crawling behind the teacher and holding onto a knotted rope. Identify a safe meeting place away from the building and away from the area where the fire truck might be.
In addition to practicing drills, teach children to recognize a firefighter in full gear. Firefighters can be frightening to children. To lessen their fears, invite community firefighters to visit the classroom and show children how they put on their gear. Involve parents in teaching the children and reinforcing the concepts at home, including practicing home fire drills.
Dr. Charlotte Hendricks, assistant editor of Healthy CHILDCare, specializes in the health and safety of young children and can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The National Fire Protection Association has two programs for teaching fire safety and prevention to young children. For more information on the Learn Not to Burn Preschool Program (1991) and Risk Watch (1997), please call 800-344-3555.
Smith, C.J., Hendricks, C.M., and Bennett, B. (1997). Growing, Growing Strong: A Whole Health Curriculum for Young Children. Redleaf Press. For more information, please call 800-423-8309.