Escape safely from smoke or flames

Emergency Situation: Your troop has just assembled in the church basement for its monthly meeting when a Scout near the back of the room stands up, calls for attention, and points to the closed door. Smoke is slowly billowing from underneath it. What do you do?Survive This: Fire Safety


Assuming the church isn’t having a basement barbecue, you’re about to put your training to use in a big way.

No two fire situations are exactly alike: Fire conditions vary in severity, building layouts differ, and there’s no easy way to predict how quickly a fire will spread. Nevertheless, one piece of advice holds true: Do not waste time. Fire moves fast, and your first concern should be to get out immediately, and then call 911 once you’re safe. Don’t try to be the hero with the garden hose. Leave the firefighting to the firefighters.

For every rule, though, there’s an exception: A small, contained fire in many cases can be extinguished using a Class ABC fire extinguisher. However, in a situation where the severity of the fire is unknown, take the following steps.

First, consult your fire-safety plan. Your troop should have one, and, best case, you’ll have evacuation procedures that you practice regularly. Proper fire-safety plans note each available exit and a path to it. Always provide at least two exits, in case one is inaccessible. (See a meeting-place inspection list at During the emergency, act to calm fellow Scouts, particularly younger boys who may become frightened or begin to panic.

Second, based on your fire-safety plan, consider options for escape. If the primary exit is through the door that has smoke billowing underneath it, that’s probably not the best choice. Try feeling the door or the door handle, using the back of your hand, to determine if either is warm. Do not open the door. Not only will you risk letting smoke into the room, you’ll also make things worse by adding the room’s oxygen to the fire.

Next, direct everyone in the room to get low to the floor. Smoke rises, so the safest posture is on all fours. Remember, you don’t have to be in a room filled with smoke to become incapacitated by it. Smoke from fires contains a witch’s brew of toxins, and you may become sick or lose consciousness from inhaling relatively minor amounts. Or, your vision might even become blurred.

If the smoke is thick, direct everyone to cover their mouths and noses with bandanas, neckerchiefs, or any available fabric. If possible, dampen the cloth. This will keep larger particulates out of your airway.

Move on to your secondary exit, crawling low to the ground. If you cannot remember your safety plan, look for areas marked with an illuminated “Exit” sign. This could be a door that leads to another room, hallway, or emergency stairway that leads outside. Take that path to safety.

In some cases, you might need to exit through a window. If you can’t open it quickly, use something solid to break the glass. Then, remove all shards before first helping the young and then those who need special assistance to get out. Windows and doors with security bars must, by law, have quick releases to allow them to be opened in an emergency. In your training, you should have practiced opening them with your eyes closed.

Finally, leave no one behind. This is critical. Firefighters will risk their lives to save those trapped in a burning building. An adult should keep count of all those who leave and be the last one out.


  •  Your fire-safety plan should include a map of the building, with all emergency exit routes noted.
  •  If smoke and flames block all exit routes, stay in the room but seal all cracks around the door with wet towels, sheets, or blankets. Wait for help.
  •  When you call 911, give the building address, your exact location, and the number of people in the room.

Josh Piven is co-author of the Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook series. Visit his Web site at

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