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Home fires are deadly, killing thousands every year in the United States alone—and they're almost always preventable. Still, while prevention is key, it's what you do in the middle of a fire that may save your life. Unlike other disasters that give you warning and time to get away, a fire isn't nearly as forgiving. Here's how to prepare, and what to do.

Before: Preparation (and Smoke Detectors) Is Everything

Remember, a house fire isn't just one thing—it's a deadly mixture of things: Smoke and toxic gases, lack of oxygen, crippling heat, scorching flames, and a lack of light are all dangerous on their own, and a house fire offers every single one of them. It's important to be prepared and act quickly if a fire occurs.

  • Make sure you have a disaster plan. Your plan in the case of a fire should largely consist of an evacuation plan that you've practiced. Everyone in your household or office should be well versed in it, and you should have meet-up or rally points set at a safe distance from your home or office. Make sure you have multiple ways out of each room, even if that means you need collapsible fire ladders for upper-floor windows. If you live in an apartment building or high-rise, memorize the fastest way to the nearest stairwell, by sight and by feel. You should be able to get there even if you can't see—which you may not be able to in a fire.
  • Make sure you can open windows, screens, security bars, and doors. You and everyone in your household should be comfortable opening security bars on windows, screen doors, anything that might slow down your egress from a burning building.
  • Make sure you have smoke alarms installed and you change their batteries regularly. Dual-sensor smoke detectors are best, as they feature both ionization and photoelectric smoke sensors. If they're wired to the power in your home, that's best, but they should also have battery backups. Change those batteries regularly—every year is a good guideline, or every time daylight savings kicks starts or ends. Don't let cost hold you back—most fire departments will give smoke detectors and batteries out for free if you can't afford them. While you're getting smoke alarms, get a carbon monoxide detector too.
  • Keep household fire extinguishers handy. If the fire is serious, do not try putting it out yourself. A household extinguisher can help keep a small fire from spreading, or help you clear a path to a safe area, but they're not for heroics. I like to keep one in my bedroom and another in the kitchen in my apartment. If you live in a larger house, you may consider two on every floor, especially near bedrooms, kitchens, furnaces, or water heaters.

During: Get Low, Get Out

During a house fire, escape should be your top priority. You may only have seconds to get out safely. You likely won't have time to grab a go-bag or run around the house collecting important items. Leave them and get out as soon as possible. If a fire alarm has gone off in your building, you may have a few moments, but if there's a fire in your house, there's no time to waste.

  • Get to the nearest exit immediately. If there's smoke in the air, get as low as possible where you may be able to breathe and feel your way out. If there's smoke blocking your door, open the window. Before opening any door, feel the doorknob and the door body. If it's warm or there's smoke coming in from the other side, don't open the door—there may be a raging fire on the other side. Use your second exit, even if it's a window. If you have to open a door, open it slowly and be ready to shut it if smoke comes in.
  • Once you're out, contact emergency services. Don't wait to contact them inside the house. Get out first. If you can't get to family members or pets on the safe way out, let them know when you call 911 and let them know where in the home they are.
  • Do not go back into a burning building.

After: Stay Safe and Pick Up The Pieces

House fires are incredibly destructive. You likely won't be able to return to your home until well after the danger has passed. Wait for the fire department to tell you it's safe. Contact your insurance company, landlord, mortgage company, or any other relevant agencies to let them know about the fire. When the fire department has given you the okay to go back inside, try to collect valuable items like documents, records, or irreplaceable items and assess the damage. Before you leave a fire-damaged home, let the police know that you're leaving and the place will be unoccupied—fire damaged properties are often a target for burglars.

The US Fire Administration has an What to Do After a Home Fire checklist and guide to help you through the first 24 hours after a fire, including everything from insurance to replacement documents that may have been lost. Rebuilding after a fire is a long and draining process. It's not something that happens in a day, or even a few weeks—it takes a long time. Be ready for a long process, and give yourself plenty of time to recover. ARS, Ready to Serve. 888-498-8356 https://www.arsserve.com/