Disability. Fire. Escape Plan.

Jill Rose

Most people mentally paint the walls and arrange their furniture when they buy a new house. Not me. I’m too busy planning my escape plan in case of a fire.

I grew up with a father who was a firefighter. Whether he’s aware of it or not, he’s planted the seed of terror in me. My biggest fear in life, without question, is a house fire. 

When I drove around with my dad on any given day while growing up, he would point to a series of roofs and say, “what were they thinking with these roofs, the fire will just jump from one house to the next.” Or he might point to a dirty rain gutter, old wood siding, or some other flammable material and shake his head with a sad, slightly judgy look on his face. I know what he was thinking – if only these people could see what I’ve seen, they would immediately fix it.

Before we bought our current townhouse, I made sure there were fire walls between each house. Even after I was assured firewalls were indeed there; I needed to lay my eyes on them. So I located similar townhouses that were under construction and closely inspected the firewalls. It wasn’t until that moment I was ready to buy.  I knew that I could rest easy, not worrying about my neighbors’ potential habits of leaving their stoves on or falling asleep with a lit cigarette.

With firewalls checked off the list, it was time to create an escape plan. I was fearful of how my children would get out from the third floor of our townhome. Having a child with Down syndrome (and the extremely low muscle tone that often comes with DS) complicated things further. How do I get her down if she’s disoriented, confused, or flat-out refuses?

For context, our townhouse is sandwiched between two other townhouses, we have no side windows. There is a third floor landing and a bedroom to the right and to the left of this middle landing.

Both bedrooms have a window and right below each window is a roof which covers the front and rear decks. With a rope ladder, we could easily escape from either window and make it to our neighbors’ second floor decks on either side. But what if there were a fire on the landing between the two bedrooms?  The answer to that question is to have fire blankets and fire extinguishers placed in every room of the house and have the rope fire ladder in the closet that’s between the two bedrooms. That way, we could use the extinguishers and fire blankets to get to the fire ladder and then choose the best bedroom for our escape. (Indeed, I have played out every conceivable scenario because, as a firefighter’s daughter, why wouldn’t I?) 

All of this mental preparation might have seemed excessive … until there was a house fire three townhouses down from mine just days ago. My neighbor next to the burning townhouse called me in a complete meltdown. I wasn’t home at the time and reminded my neighbor that there are firewalls. I could hear fire trucks on the way. I assured her there was nothing to worry about.

My biggest fear was now happening in real time. Thankfully all of my neighbors were OK. And shockingly, so was I. My research and precautions meant I felt zero stress. All of my pre-game fire safety practices had paid off. Thankfully, my family and I were not home to experience the trauma of being there when it happened. Two propane tanks exploded in this fire; it was loud and chaotic and those who were there are still shaken to their core. The houses bordering both sides of the burning house though, just as I expected, are absolutely fine.

Later that day, after coming home and witnessing the carnage, I began thinking about people who might have a loved one who’s elderly or in a wheelchair. What would their escape plan look like?  I googled and surprisingly little came up. The escape plans involve a harness and a pulley system, but nothing that I found for households, just extremely expensive systems meant for high rise buildings.  My goal in writing this is to start a dialogue and find out if anyone has come up with an affordable escape plan and would they mind sharing it? 

My advice is to walk around your house, inside and outside, and think about how you would escape from every single room of the house. If your fire extinguisher is in the garage, how would that help you if you’re on the second or third floor?  If you pre-plan the worst case scenario, rather than panicking if it actually happens, you would be able to remain calm, knowing that you already have a plan. 

Oh, and gentle reminder, check those fire alarms. The hard wired alarms only last for ten years. My dad, ironically, replaced all of mine just one month ago.

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Fire Blankets

Fire Ladder

Two Fire Extinguishers

Multiple Standard Fire Extinguishers