Eagle County sheriff: Tips for staying safe in a fire emergency (column)
As sheriff, I am also designated Eagle County’s fire marshal. Although not a firefighter, I oversee fire protection in unincorporated Eagle County and areas outside of fire-protection districts and federal lands, and during a fire crisis, all services are coordinated through our Emergency Operations Center.
What we have in Eagle County that others do not are leaders who exhibit a high degree of mutual respect and consideration. The normal bureaucracy that causes life-threatening delays is simply nonexistent. Our local team includes fire-protection leaders from Vail, Avon, Eagle, Gypsum and Rock Creek, in addition to our amazing federal and state partners. Many other areas of the country have agencies run by those who are so protective of their own unique mission that they inadvertently create life-threatening dysfunction.
Official agreements between agencies are detailed every year, but there is also a deep understanding that in an emergency, everyone steps up to do what they can and fill in the gaps. They get the job done, with paperwork and jurisdiction constraints addressed after the emergency is contained.
Without these considerations, we experience unnecessary tragedies, such as what occurred during Hurricane Katrina. That will never happen here. While there are some overlapping responsibilities among agencies, all is coordinated through our Emergency Operations Center to efficiently direct resources and coordinate life-saving measures.
Most of us don’t think much about fires, yet some facts may surprise you. According to http://www.ready.gov, it takes less than 30 seconds for a small flame to become a major fire and only minutes for toxic gases and black smoke to create total darkness in a home, while engulfing it in flames.
The heat from a fire is more threatening than the flames: a 100-degree temperature at floor level can be 600 degrees at eye level. Inhalation of this intense heat will burn your lungs, melt clothing onto your body and likely kill you. Even nonlethal fumes will cause disorientation and drowsiness. Asphyxiation is the leading cause of fire deaths, exceeding burns by a 3-to-1 ratio.
With all this oversight and preparation, what can individuals do to help reduce the potential for fire in our homes and workspace?
With winter approaching, outdoor threats reduce and indoor ones increase. Upon leaving a commercial burning building, remember to feel all doors for heat before opening and then immediately close them behind you to keep oxygen from fueling the fire. Check restrooms and other enclosed areas for occupants who may not be aware of the emergency or who might have physical limitations in leaving the building. Don’t assume that alarms or others have alerted authorities; call 911.
Home precautions are easy. Clean out fireplace chimneys; fall leaves can create a fire hazard. Surprisingly, dryer lint is a major cause of home fires; clean between loads. Check malfunctioning appliances. Don’t overload outlets or run cords under a rug, where heat or sparks can ignite. Keep light bulbs away from drapes. Never leave space heaters unattended or where they might get knocked over, and don’t place them near curtains or furniture. Put a fire extinguisher in the kitchen and on each floor. Install both ionization and photoelectric smoke alarms in every room.
During a home fire, while heading out, grab your go-bag (contents listed on ready.gov) and pets. If you are unable to locate the animals, then leave immediately and do not return to retrieve them. Often, they will escape on their own; the smoke will instinctively drive them out of the house, and the noise and confusion will often cause them to hide somewhere outside, where they are hidden and feel safe. Re-entering the building will only endanger your life.
Always identify alternate exits and practice leaving through them. Make sure everyone, including children, knows how to unlock all doors and windows. Give children permission to break a stuck window to escape.
Keep a jacket and shoes near the bed for easy access, along with any mobility equipment for those in need. In multilevel units, locate stairwells; if smoky below, you may need to climb up to the roof, heading in the direction of the wind, to reduce smoke inhalation.
Invest in a window ladder and show everyone how to use it. Master the dog crawl, while holding a cloth to your face, to reduce smoke inhalation; make it a game with your kids. Teach children not to hide during a fire, even though they are frightened, and if clothes catch fire to stop, drop and roll. Keep a flashlight in every room, and if unable to leave, shine it toward the window, altering firefighters. Close the door; cover vents and cracks to reduce smoke. Designate an outdoor assembly point, and instruct children to quickly run out and stay there.
As we gather with family and friends during the upcoming season, remember that the best gift you can give is to remain safe and alive. The Eagle County Sheriff’s Office is here to serve and help make this a year of happiness for all.
James van Beek is the Eagle County sheriff. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.