“Fire!” The very exclamation itself is enough to render the most stout of heart and soul into victims of panic and fear, if not into another fire fatality statistic. For there is something primeval about fire, one of the great dual-edged swords of civilization: when under our control, we can’t imagine living without it. When fire is its own master, it is a malevolent and indiscriminate killer.
The threat of fire may be a remote thought for the seasoned business traveler, who stays in a modern hotel, and who assumes every precaution has been taken to ensure that safety is paramount. But the fact is, when staying overnight at even the nicest of establishments, you may be at greater risk than you ever imagined. While there are no hard figures, the U.S. Subcommittee on Science, Research and Technology finds that as many as 85 percent of U.S. hotels lack fire sprinkler systems.
At Greatest Risk
Each year some 32.6 million fires strike Americans at home, in hotels, or at the workplace. That’s one fire virtually every second of the day. Fire is the third largest cause of accidental injury and death in this country. Injuries by fire total two million annually, and one out of every eight accidental deaths is from fire.
And the U.S. and Canada have the highest rates of death by fire than any other country in the world. But it isn’t necessary to die in the event of fire, even if you are thousands of miles from home in a hotel room with no fire sprinkler system. However, you have to take charge of your own safety. And you have to be prepared in the event the worst happens.
1. Plan Ahead
Plan your escape from a fire before you are caught in one. Here’s what I do – every time.
Before I hang up my clothes or plop down to relax, I familiarize myself with the locations of the fire exits nearest my room. These are generally shown on a map posted on the back of the room door or in a closet. I use the map to locate the two exits nearest my room.
Next I take my key and head out the door. I try to imagine how I would find my way to the nearest fire exit in the dark while crawling on my hands and knees. I count the doorways between me and the fire exit and note any obstacles that could get in my way.
When I reach the exit, I open the door. A locked door will surely be a death trap if a fire were to occur. (By the way, if the door is alarmed, I first notify the hotel security department of my intention to open the door. Then, without letting the door close behind me, possibly trapping me in the stairwell, I take a look inside to get an idea of its configuration and to confirm that the stairwell is free of obstacles that could block my escape.
On my way to or from my room, I find the nearby fire alarms and fire extinguishers or fire hoses. If there are none visible, I’ll call the front desk when I return to my room to ask their location. Then I’ll go verify their actual presence.
Because it is possible that my path to the nearest fire escape may be blocked during an emergency, I map out a secondary escape route that would take me in the opposite direction as the route I just followed. Again, I note the locations of the fire alarms and extinguishers/hoses.
When I return to my room, I look out the window to see if it would be possible to jump without breaking my neck. In case I’d have to escape that way, I look for obstacles under my window.
I verify the operation of the smoke detector in my room. Typically, a small light on the smoke detector indicates its operation. If I’m unsure that it is working, I call the front desk for assistance.
I figure out how to turn off the fan that delivers air into my room. I find the location of both the entry- and return-air vents and make a mental note of how I could seal them if I were trapped in my room during a hotel fire. Then, because I’d need to let others know I was in my room, I make sure that I can get an outside telephone connection – typically by pressing “8” or “9” – without relying on a hotel operator.
Finally, with an escape plan in place, now I relax.
2. If There is a Fire
If there is any indication or even a suspicion of a fire, call the hotel operator immediately. Give your name, room number, and a brief description of the situation.
Before attempting to leave your room, grab your key. If your family is with you, determine a meeting place outdoors so you will know everyone is safe.
Feel the door with the back side of your hand (if you used your palm, it might burn your hand due to heat transfer and you would have a hard time using it). If the door or knob is warm, do not open it.
If the door is not warm, drop to your knees and slowly open the door, but be ready to slam it should a cloud of smoke roll in. If the hallway is clear, head for the exit, not the elevator. Close your door behind you. Take your key with you.
Do not stand upright, but crawl or keep low to the floor to avoid smoke and odorless carbon monoxide.
Stay on the same side of the hall as your exit, counting the number of doors to the exit. When you reach the exit, walk quickly, but cautiously down the stairs, and hold on to the handrail as you go. Smoke will sometimes get into an exit stairwell. If you encounter smoke, do not try to run through it. Turn around and walk up. Proceed to a smoke free corridor and cross the building to an alternate exit.
If you are unable to leave your room, make every effort to notify someone that you are in your room. If you cannot reach the hotel operator, call the local fire department and identify your exact location. Signal to them by hanging a bed sheet from your window.
If there is smoke in your room, open the window. Do not break the glass unless it is absolutely necessary because heavier smoke may begin to enter from outside.
Fill the bathtub with water. Wet towels and sheets and stuff them around the door and vent which is allowing smoke to enter the room.
If the door and walls are hot, bail water on them with your ice bucket to keep them cool.
Place the mattress up against the door and hold it in place with the dresser. Keep it wet. Keep everything wet.
A wet towel tied around your nose and mouth will help filter out smoke if you fold it into a triangle and put the corner in your mouth.
If there is a fire outside of the window, pull down the drapes and move everything that is flammable away from the window.
Do not jump from the room. A fall from this height can cause serious injury. Rather, continue to protect yourself from the fire and signal from your window for help.