There's no escaping the drill of planning for a fire


October 10, 1992|By ROB KASPER

I'm not sure what went on when the Cub Scouts visited the firehouse. All I know is that soon after our scout came home, I found myself wobbling atop the stepladder, poking smoke detectors.

I was headed toward the supper table when the scout, fresh from the firehouse and still wearing his uniform, presented me with a list of matters that needed immediate attention.

He reported we had to test our smoke detectors. And we had to have an escape plan, ways to get out of the house in the event of a fire.

I couldn't argue with him.

The kid had some of the major authorities of the Western world -- the Cub Scouts, the fire department and episodes of the TV show "Rescue 911" -- to back him up. We negotiated a settlement.

I was allowed to eat supper, but only if I discussed escape routes during the meal. I could check the smoke detectors later.

Planning escape routes, two for every room, brought back memories. As a kid, I spent a large part of my elementary school education plotting ways to escape classrooms, especially during math class.

I never found the fire drills at school very interesting. Everyone had to file "silently and in single file" out of the classroom and onto the playground, then return to the classroom.

Years later I happened upon a more appealing kind of drill. One newspaper I worked for had a boss who was fond of ordering fire drills. We seemed to have them about once a week. Eventually, under the leadership of the photographers, we filed out of the building and kept walking until we landed in the friendly confines of a tavern. There we stayed, enjoying the cheeseburgers and other comforts of the pub until we felt it was "safe" to go back to the building. It took hours for some folks to feel secure enough to return to work.

The fire drills soon became less frequent.

While I found my school fire drills boring, planning an escape out of the classroom window was stimulating stuff. Such an escape would require a cool head, a sense of daring and lots of knotted clothing. I had an escape plan for all seasons.

My winter fire escape plan was to grab the coats off the coat rack and tie the coat arms together. Then I would secure this "coat rope" to a classroom window frame and slide down the "rope" to safety. I spent a lot time staring out the classroom window, working out details.

It wasn't until the fifth grade that I came up with a plan for what to do during a warm-weather school fire, when the coat supply vanished. I decided to make my "rope" out of shirts. Further, I decided that if there weren't enough shirts, I might use pants as well. This was a touchy call. In the fifth grade, being seen in your underwear seemed about as terrifying as being stuck in a burning building.

Typically, the scout in our house had already planned his escape out of his bedroom window. Moreover, he had tried it. That happened one Saturday afternoon when he and two of his buddies were in the bedroom, on the top floor of our four-story rowhouse, hurling themselves at the beds and at each other. Somehow in the fray, the kids jammed the bedroom door shut.

They hollered for me to come up and open the door. But I was two floors below them and couldn't hear them distinctly. When three 7-year-old kids are playing, shouting is the normal form of communication. There is a fire escape on the back of our house. And so when the trapped trio couldn't rouse me, they opened the fourth-floor bedroom window and climbed down the fire escape.

When the kids told me how they got out of the room, I was both frightened and pleased. The thought of the kids slipping and falling to the ground made my knees weak. I lectured the trio about the danger of being on the fire escape. But at the same time I was impressed. They had climbed down without fear. That, as the 7-year-old reminded me later, would be important if our house caught on fire.

Since the Cub Scouts visited the fire station, we have repeatedly discussed what would happen if our house burned to the ground.

One morning this week, when the scout and his brother had gone to school, I got out the stepladder. I went around the house pressing test buttons on all the smoke detectors. They shrieked. The ladder wobbled. My ears hurt.

Testing smoke detectors is not as much fun as imagining what it would be like if everyone took off their clothes and made them into a rope. But it is probably a more effective form of fire safety.

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