How to safely get yourself, family out of a burning home

Families should know steps, practice plan every 6 months

By Bill Spencer - Investigative Reporter, Tera Roberson - Special Projects Producer

HOUSTON - It is a startling statistic, but every day, house fires kill an average of seven people in this country, for an average of a little more than 2,500 people per year. Most are fast moving fires that often break out at night, blinding you with thick, black smoke.

"It was all fire coming straight down from the roof, so the entire front of the house was utterly on fire," Maureen Aissa said as she described the monstrous fire which broke out in her home in the middle of the night with her five children inside.

She had never practiced a fire escape plan with her family.

"We didn't have a plan," she said. "We should have had a plan."

Aissa's son, Jeffrey, was killed.

A choked up Maureen said, "Losing a child is the worst, beyond the worst grief you could ever have."

According to the American Red Cross, Aissa's family is not alone when it comes to lacking a fire plan. The American Red Cross officials said a whopping 82 percent of American families don't have a plan in place.

With help from Celeste and Derek Smith and their four children and the assistance of the Pearland Fire Department, Channel 2 Investigates reporter Bill Spencer worked with the Smith family to teach them the five critical steps they should know in order to safely get out of a house fire alive.

Celeste Smith admitted her family wouldn't know what to do if a fire broke out in their home.

"No, we've never practiced anything like that with our family," she said.

KPRC 2 News set up smoke machines, even fake flames to simulate a house fire. Then we waited until the family went to sleep. With night vision cameras in every room, we filled the home with smoke.

Before the fire drill began, Celeste Smith said she felt she would be able to get out of her home safely. She said she's lived there long enough and knows the floor plan well enough. So, we began the drill.

Right away, Celeste and Derek Smith stand straight up when exiting their bedroom. That's a big mistake. Super-heated air can reach 300 degrees at eye-level, so standing straight up is very dangerous.

At the same time, the kids open the doors to their bedrooms without checking them for heat, which is also a huge mistake, according to Roland Garcia, of the Pearland Fire Department.

"Before you go out a door, you need to feel it with the back of your hand to make sure it's not hot, because there might be a fire on the other side," Garcia said.

After the family made it out to the front yard, Celeste Smith, still a bit shaken, admitted, "It was scary, it was really scary, I couldn't find the stairs."

The Smiths' daughter, April, said, "It was just like really loud, and it was smoke everywhere."

"It was a lot harder to see than I expected," Derek Smith said.

Once the family was out safely, we took them through the five steps every family needs to take to make sure everyone gets out alive.

  • STEP 1: When you get out of your bed, you've got to stay very low, so try to crawl on the floor, or stay very low.
  • STEP 2: Before opening any door, check it for heat using your hands.
  • STEP 3: As you're going down the stairway, you want to feel the wall for direction, so you can get down the stairs quicker.
  • STEP 4: Have one fire escape ladder in every upstairs bedroom mounted on a window to help family members escape safely. Fire ladders like the Kidde brand fire ladder can be purchased from Home Depot for as little as $35.
  • STEP 5: Once you're out, stay out. Never go back into a burning home.

After teaching the family the critical steps to escape their burning home, we sent them back in for another drill. The family did everything right: staying low, checking the doors, and using the walls as a guide.

And the result?

"It felt better having practiced it a couple times. I knew where I was going and I knew what the plan was," Celeste Smith said.

Now that you know, it's your turn to come up with a fire plan for your home and family. Remember the five crucial steps and practice your escape plan once every six months with the entire family.

If you are unfamiliar with making a fire survival plan, click here to find a checklist form the American Red Cross.

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