A fire swept through a converted rowhouse in Philadelphia on Wednesday. A dozen people died, more than half of them children. It’s one of the worst residential fires in living memory, both in Philadelphia and across the United States. We don’t yet know exactly why or how, and with this fresh of a tragedy, that matters less than caring for the living – a task that has barely begun as the family and community are still processing that it happened at all. It’s also, as is often the case when we hear about stories like this, a cue to look at our own preparations so that we aren’t part of another, similar story. Here are some for you to consider:
Keep an eye on areas of your home that could be fire hazards. This time of year, lingering Christmas trees can be a big one as they dry out and become more flammable. So too are space heaters and candles, which don’t always get the distance they need from curtains, clothing, and other items that can burn. They should never be left unsupervised and, if possible, not left going while you’re sleeping. I know that can be hard if you don’t have adequate heat in your home, but extra layers and blankets, even heated blankets and mattress pads that are specifically meant to be left on overnight, are far less risky. You should also check on those ever-rattier nests of cords and plugs we all have. Make sure devices are properly plugged in as they can loosen over time, and try to balance them among different outlets so you don’t have too many hanging off a power strip or drawing from one circuit at any one time. They’re small, obvious things to track, but easy to forget, so here’s a reminder.
Make sure you are set up to detect and stop fires in your living areas. The smoke alarms at that rowhouse had been checked within the last year, with fresh batteries installed where they were known to be needed, and that’s a really good start. For some reason, it appears they weren’t working on Wednesday, and it’s not clear why not. For your own home, you might think about making sure yours are functional. With smoky cooking and sensitive alarms, how often that alarm blares can be annoying, and it’s tempting to do whatever you can do get it to stop. If you must disable your smoke detectors during those times, you have to be extremely consistent on turning them back on as soon as possible after. In addition, get some ABC multipurpose fire extinguishers for your kitchen, garage, and other higher risk areas in your home, and spend some time learning other ways of dealing with small home fires. For example, it’s important to know not to throw water on a grease or electrical fire, and how to smother them with baking soda, salt, a pan lid, or heavy/fire blanket.
Have a plan for escaping a fire inside your home, including temporary homes like hotels. Obviously, you know where the doors are where you live, but perhaps not where you’re staying for short periods. If they are kept locked – and doors to outside should be! – are you able to unlock them under stress or if you can’t see? Are there windows that you can use to get out and can you also open them? If they aren’t on the first floor, do you have a portable escape ladder nearby and do you know how to use it? Have you practiced? You should have multiple routes, in case one is blocked by the fire you’re trying to avoid. Can you get through those routes safely if there’s darkness or smoke? You might need to move some furniture around or focus your clutter-clearing to ensure that there aren’t trip hazards left along them. Is there anybody you live with who might need help getting out? These are only starting steps, and you can get more ideas from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the American Red Cross, and others.
Finally, in case everything does go wrong, plan ahead to give yourself a head start in rebuilding your life. If you own your own home, you likely have homeowner’s insurance, but you should check that it can replace what you can and need to replace, and know how it can help you with repairing any damage. If you don’t, renter’s insurance can cover your belongings and may provide assistance with a temporary place to stay until you can get back into your place or find a new one. Asking questions before you need to draw on your insurance is a lot less stressful than trying to figure it out after a disaster, so make some time to do that soon. The other thing you’ll want to do, besides having a general emergency fund in place along with your insurance, is to get all of your important papers backed up in a secure place. Traditionally, this meant a safe deposit box at a bank, but these days digital copies in the cloud or even your email can be enough for many documents. As part of this thought process, think about what in your home should be kept in a fireproof safe box for best chance of survival, and what you absolutely must prioritize bringing with you if you need to escape. Your life matters the most, and should be your first thought, so you don’t want to be wasting time with grabbing unnecessary things or frozen with indecision about what you might need.
As always here at On Her Own, we aren’t here to lay blame on someone for suffering a disaster, or not being able to recover from it in the most efficient way. We do, however, want to learn lessons from tragedies so we don’t end up in our own. It’s the very least way we can honor the sacrifice of those who have gone through those experiences, so let’s do that here, for these families.