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Poisonous fumes and smoke claim many more lives than fire itself, and there are potentially lethal substances in every home and workplace. Knowing the risks, devising escape drills and understanding fire could save your life.

Fire facts

Fire is an ever-present threat to life and property in the urban environment. In Britain alone there are about 50,000 accidental domestic fires a year—at least 70 per cent of fire deaths occur in the home. There are almost monthly reminders from around the world of the dangers of fire in places like underground stations, sports stadia and hotels.

At work the risks are just as great, no matter whether you work in known hazardous conditions or in the most up-to-date office block. However, one advantage of living in the city is the short response time of fire brigades—although you cannot rely on that as your only safeguard.

To reduce the risks, to protect yourself and possibly save lives you MUST understand more about fire—how it can start, how it behaves and how it kills.

Know the enemy

Fire is a chemical reaction-but it’s easy to forget what can make that reaction happen. If you were starting a fire in a grate or on a barbecue, you would need kindling or firelighters on to which you would put coal, wood or charcoal. This is your FUEL. A lighted match is the first source of energy or HEAT. The fuel might not burn easily, so you blow on the firelighter or fan it. By doing so, you are providing the third vital ingredient, OXYGEN. If there is a good supply of oxygen the firelighter will burn freely and generate more heat and the fuel will start to burn, result-FIRE.


The three ingredients can be remembered as the fire TRIANGLE. The scientific term for the chemical reaction is oxidation or combustion. The fire will continue to burn, as long as the three ingredients-the points of the fire triangle—are present. If one of the points of the triangle is removed, it will collapse—the fire will go out.


The fire triangle idea should be applied to any location or situation you find yourself in. Fire prevention means identifying, in advance, where the three points-HEAT/FUEL/OXYGEN-are going to come together with possibly deadly results.

Breaking the triangle

Whether you are snuffing a candle or putting out a house fire, your intention is the same—deprive the fire of at least one of the three points of the fire triangle. This can be done by removing:

  • FUEL Fire breaks (wide channels with no trees) in forests do this. A forest fire will spread only as far as the fire break—it can go no further because there is nothing to burn. In the urban environment or in your home ‘fuel’ is everywhere!
  • HEAT Water is the classic way to cool a fire—with a hose or a bucket.
  • OXYGEN Literally suffocating the fire. This is almost impossible outdoors, but it is the key to stopping or slowing down fires inside. On a small scale, this is how a fire blanket works.

The speed at which a fire can spread is something that should never be underestimated! Using evidence from fires in homes and public buildings, fire experts have established that even a large building or structure can be totally engulfed by flames WITHIN TWO MINUTES.

Man-made structures like houses are built from and contain large quantities of fuel. Most of our possessions and furniture are highly combustible. They are made either of natural products such as wood, or man-made materials-many of which contain highly- poisonous and highly-flammable chemicals. Most parts of a building are well ventilated. Large windows, doors, corridors and ventilation systems provide a ready supply of oxygen.

If the third ingredient (heat) is provided under these circumstances, a fire of extreme intensity can be created in a frighteningly short space of time. You may have only two minutes to make sure all the occupants of your home are safe.

How fire spreads

When a building fire starts it spreads rapidly, heating up its surroundings by:

  • DIRECT CONTACT Flames passing from one object to another.
  • CONVECTION Heat rising, carrying gases and smoke.
  • RADIATION Heat rays causing flammable objects in the vicinity to burst into flames.

Convection is the most life-threatening, as it is the fastest way the smoke and flames travel—a fire spreads rapidly UP a building. This is why stairwells are so dangerous.


Almost 90 per cent of fires in the home can be traced to one of ten causes. Here they are, in order of importance, starting with the most common:

COOKERS The largest single cause of domestic fires. Fat fires, especially those caused by chip pans, frequently get out of control.

PORTABLE HEATERS Knocked over accidentally or left too close to furniture or flammable materials, the main culprits are electric, cylinder gas and paraffin (kerosene) heaters.

CIGARETTES Each cigarette is a potential fire-starting heat source. Accidentally-dropped cigarettes fall on to upholstered furniture or beds, smoulder for a while and then flare up.

MATCHES Left either too close to fires or within reach of young children.

ELECTRICAL WIRING Old or badly-installed wiring, incorrect fuses and overloaded sockets generate heat that starts fires.

ELECTRIC BLANKETS Old blankets develop faults, often because they have been folded up too tightly. The element inside breaks or becomes exposed-when plugged in, it short circuits and catches fire.

BLOW TORCHES/LAMPS Used for ‘do it yourself’ and by professionals, they start fires when they are used carelessly, are left unattended or are not maintained properly.

TELEVISIONS/COMPUTER SCREENS These operate using very high voltages-far higher than other domestic appliances—and electrical faults cause fires and explosions.

CHIMNEYS Neglected for too long, soot builds up and catches fire-sometimes undetected until serious structural damage has been done.

CANDLES A simple unguarded flame—easily knocked over and capable of igniting furniture and fittings in seconds. Forgotten or neglected candles may produce disastrous results.

Fire at work

In industry, flammable materials such as chemicals, fuels and gases MUST be stored according to specific fire safety regulations. They should ALWAYS be stored away from sources of heat and heat-generating processes like machining, smelting and firing. They should also be kept apart from each other—avoiding the formation of deadly ‘cocktails’ in the event of fire.

Full training should be given to minimize accidents, although human error is only one factor. A faulty piece of machinery or badly-maintained plant could easily be a cause of fire.

In an office there may not seem to be as many obvious fire risks as there are in a factory. Nevertheless, offices contain all the ingredients that can lead to serious fires. Furnishings, equipment and stored paper are found in abundance. Old buildings could have faulty wiring or poorly-maintained electrical fittings. Electrical equipment and wiring could, in the event of a malfunction, be the heat source that starts a fire.


In large modern offices, particularly those which rely heavily on computers, there is a different set of fire hazards—providing architects and office designers with major problems. These offices consume a large amount of electricity and are served by complicated wiring systems. At the same time the environmental temperature must be controlled by air conditioning for higher efficiency and comfort.

Accommodating both wiring and air conditioning, but keeping them out of sight, means that many offices are designed with false ceilings and cavity floors. In most cases these meet fire safety requirements. In the event of a fault developing (modern dockside office developments in London, for example, are plagued by mice and rats which can chew through wiring) a fire could start undetected, in close proximity to good ventilation from air conditioning. Even a reinforced concrete structure can burn!

Public buildings

Fire experts have identified two categories of public building which give rise to the greatest concern: sports grounds and large shopping premises.

The safety of sports grounds depends largely on their design and construction. Football stadium fires in the past have served as tragic lessons in how not to build such structures. Wooden seats, stands or roofs are obviously dangerous. The build-up of discarded rubbish which needs only a carelessly-thrown cigarette to spark a fire greatly adds to the danger. The difficulty of evacuating large crowds in a very short space of time is often the main reason for high death tolls.

In a shop, fire could be started by any of the causes mentioned already but two factors make the outbreak of fire even more hazardous. Shops may contain large quantities of combustible materials, and they often have complex layouts (and the casual shopper is unlikely to be aware of fire exits). These factors, particularly if the shop is crowded, will make the staff’s job of evacuating panicking shoppers extremely difficult.

The open plan design of many shops means that fire and smoke can spread easily. In an environment designed to encourage the free flow of shoppers, it is difficult to restrict the free flow of smoke. Large shops with an open well rising through one or more floors are, in effect, large smoke-generating chimneys to which the public have access!


In public buildings, the causes of fire are essentially the same as they would be in your own home. The difference is that the responsibility for preventing fire is out of your control. Nevertheless, be aware at all times of where fire can start and know what action to take.


As fire takes hold two things happen. Firstly, the air temperature in a room increases dramatically, discolouring furniture and causing scorching which can produce smoke and poisonous gases. Secondly, fresh supplies of air are sucked into the room as hot air rises and escapes. The air temperature increases until it becomes superheated and flashover occurs. Parts of the room not in contact with the flames are set alight by the heat of the air itself-engulfing a room in flames in a matter of seconds! Once flashover has occurred the air remaining in the room will be hot enough to cook the lungs of anyone breathing it!

How fire kills

Fire does not just ‘burn people to death’. Understanding how fire kills could save lives. In most cases death occurs BEFORE flames have reached the victim-caused by SMOKE and TOXIC GASES. These lead to:

ASPHYXIATION Carbon monoxide and the large volume of ash and carbon particles present in smoke prevent oxygen from reaching the lungs and the bloodstream. A person will lose consciousness and suffocate very quickly (see SAFETY FIRST: Carbon monoxide).

POISONING When some materials burn, particularly man made ones, not only do they produce carbon monoxide but also toxic gases. These are often highly poisonous and will kill much faster than the effects of smoke.

The stark truth is that most of the contents of our homes contain or are made from products that produce toxic fumes when burnt. Old foam-filled furniture can be a killer! The most common and potentially-lethal types of man-made or synthetic materials and the toxic fumes that they give off are:

Polyurethane foam (often used in furniture and mattresses)

  • Cyanides including hydrogen cyanide PVC (used to cover electrical wires and in plastic goods)
  • Hydrogen chloride

Like fire, to which they are linked, we should have a fuller understanding of explosions in order to prevent them. Fire dramatically increases the risk of explosions—gas, cylinder gas, petrol, paraffin (kerosene) and solvents all have the potential to explode.

Flammable substances may combust rapidly, with a blast-like force. There is a risk of ‘explosion’ with any such substances stored in sealed containers—for example, a petrol canister, aerosol can or gas cylinder. If the contents are ignited through a rupture or defective valve or if the container is subjected to heat, the pressure built up in the container will cause an explosion. The initial force of the explosion releases the contents at high speed—in a shower or cloud. This burns as it mixes with oxygen in the air. All this happens in a fraction of a second.

Explosions can also happen if an explosive atmosphere is created. Gas, heavy fumes from solvents and liquid fuels and certain types of dust are all flammable and can build up in a confined atmosphere until a critical level is reached. A strong smell of gas, for example, is a warning of this. There are very few circumstances where this will by itself result in explosion unless the substance is highly volatile. But if the mixture of air and flammable gas or particles is ignited—even by a tiny spark—an explosion will occur.

Domestic gas causes many explosions. The source of the ignition is usually electrical. Even turning on or off a light switch, ringing a doorbell or using the telephone may provide the spark! Other causes include lighted cigarettes and matches—even static electricity, which you can produce by combing dry hair! In addition to the threat from gas leaks, many industrial and DIY processes involve substances that can create an explosive atmosphere.


The flashpoint is the lowest temperature at which a substance can give off a mixture of vapour and air, which may be ignited by a spark or static electricity. Flammable substances MUST be kept and used at a lower temperature than their flashpoint to reduce the likelihood of ignition. The main categories are:

HIGHLY FLAMMABLE Substances with a flashpoint of 32°C (90°F) or below

FLAMMABLE Substances with a flashpoint above 32°C (90°F)

Some petroleum mixtures have a flashpoint below 23°C (73°F), making them extremely flammable.

Equipment & drills

With the threat of fire all around you must know how it behaves in order to be able to prepare the right sort of defence. This can be done in two ways: firstly by reducing the causes of fire, and secondly by planning what to do if a fire breaks out. The fight against fire has led to the development of a wide range of equipment that either detects the presence of fire or acts as protection against it. It ranges from the latest in high-tech sophistication to a simple bucket of water. But in order for any equipment to be truly effective, at home or anywhere else, you MUST understand how it works.

Be prepared Your own level of preparation for fire is just as important as equipment-how will you react? What will you do? Asking the right questions is essential and, when put into the form of a fire drill, will help to eliminate panic. In a fire situation, if you know what to do, you can protect yourself and others.

Smoke detectors

The most effective early warning device for fire is a smoke detector/alarm. Smoke detectors are NOT a substitute for taking every possible precaution against fire, but they do alert the occupants in the early stages of fire while conditions may still allow for a safe escape.

There are two basic types of smoke detector, both of which are reliable. Most are the ionization type: these contain a tiny radioactive source which ionizes air inside the detector, producing electrically-charged particles (ions) and allowing a small current to flow from a battery. When smoke enters the detector, it impedes the current flow and triggers the alarm. Ionization detectors are better at detecting hot blazing fires.

The other type of detector uses a photoelectric device, which triggers an alarm when a light beam is interrupted by smoke. Photoelectric detectors tend to be more sensitive to smoke from smouldering fires.


Even the minute amount of radioactive material in an ionization detector may be hazardous. Do NOT break open the sealed parts of the detector and always follow manufacturers’ recommendations for disposal.

  • All smoke detectors are electrical, usually battery powered, in most cases using a small nine-volt battery which should last about a year
  • They should have a bleep warning indicating that the battery is running down and a button to test the detector
  • Many models have a small red light, which flashes from time to time to show that all is well
  • Some models have a built-in emergency light (powered by another battery), which may help you to see where you’re going if the electricity supply tails

False alarms can sometimes be caused by DIY jobs or cooking. Some models give you the chance to avoid this happening with an override button, which disables or desensitizes the detector for a short time.


More and more smoke detectors are coming on to the market. ALWAYS check for the features listed above and look for a label that shows the detector meets national safety standards. Don’t be hurried into buying a smoke detector by sales people—a useless detector will give you a false sense of security—take your time and shop around.


Choose a smoke alarm that is small and light to take with you when you travel. Try to sleep with the air conditioning off—it helps to prevent the rapid spread of smoke in the event of a hotel fire.

Fitting A minimum of TWO smoke detectors are recommended for a small house. The centre of the ceiling of the downstairs hallway is a good place to fit a detector—if a fire breaks out at night in the kitchen or living room, the smoke will be detected before the actual fire reaches the upstairs bedrooms. A detector on an upper landing ceiling will alert people downstairs if a fire breaks out in a bedroom. The best precaution is to fit a detector in EVERY room, particularly if there are young children, elderly or disabled people who will need extra help to be evacuated in the event of a fire.

It is VITAL that any detector can be heard, even when the occupants of the house are asleep. Some models can be interconnected, so if one detector is triggered the others in the house will also sound.

  • DON’T fit detectors by walls or in corners where the free flow of smoke will be hampered
  • DON’T fit detectors in poorly-ventilated kitchens, where fumes and steam may trigger false alarms
  • DON’T position detectors in hard-to-reach places, this may make testing difficult

Fire extinguishers

Many fire experts are sceptical about fire extinguishers, because they may encourage untrained people to ‘have a go’ when they should be evacuating a burning building. You should only consider trying to put out a fire when it is small and containable (see EMERGENCY! panels). It is safer to raise the alarm and evacuate. There is an added risk that you may use the Wrong type of extinguisher on the fire.


In Britain and elsewhere fire extinguishers are labelled with relevant information concerning the type of fire they are designed to be used against their capacity and their contents. There are three main categories of fire:

  • A Burning materials like furniture cloth and wood
  • B Burning liquids like oil
  • C Burning gases

A number, in front of the letter code which indicates the type of fire shows the capacity of the extinguisher what size of fire it can cope with. Finally the label will tell you what the contents of the extinguisher actually are (the colour of the tank should also indicate this):

  • WATER (red) Cools fire. Heavy, difficult to handle. Suitable only for A fires. Must NOT be used on electrical fires.
  • MULTI PURPOSE FOAM (cream) Cools fire Suitable for class A and B fires Must NOT be used on electrical fires
  • DRY POWDER (blue) Smothers fire Poor for cooling Suitable for class A and B Safe for use on live electrical appliances
  • CARBON DIOXIDE (CO₂) (black) Good for burning liquids and electrical fires Poor for cooling
  • HALON (BCF) (green) Good for burning liquids small fires solid fuels electrical fires The agent BCF can cause nervous disorders if it exceeds five per cent concentration in confined spaces

At home dry powder extinguishers are recommended. Avoid those with less than 1kg capacity.

Have your extinguishers serviced regularly and recharged if used. Do NOT test by discharging.

Position them prominently around the house NEVER store out of sight.

When you use a fire extinguisher follow the PASS rule:

  • Pull—or otherwise release any lock
  • Aim—at the base of the fire
  • Squeeze—or press the handle/trigger
  • Sweep—from side to side

Fire blankets

Made from non-flammable cloth (usually glass fibre), fire blankets are placed over a burning object or small fire, starving it of oxygen and smothering the flames. Domestic fire blankets are usually about 1m (over 3ft) square which is adequate for dealing with fires in the kitchen like fat fires. They MUST be easily accessible in case of emergency. Choose one that has a Wall-mounted storage tube and fix it within easy reach of your cooker, but not so that you have to reach across the hob!


Older fire blankets were made of asbestos. It is very likely that, by now, they are unsafe to use. Asbestos in this form is particularly dangerous and safe disposal should be arranged (see SAFETY FIRST: Asbestos).

Fire escapes

If you live on the first floor or higher in a multi-occupied building, your home should conform to national fire safety laws, depending on how old the building is or When a conversion Was done. Doors to communal staircases MUST be fire-resisting and self-closing. A flat should be designed so that you do not need to go from the bedroom through the living room or kitchen to reach the exit.

In purpose-built office blocks, Workplaces, schools, hotels and other public buildings, strict laws apply concerning fire exits and escapes. If a building has designated fire escapes then they should be safe, regularly maintained, kept clear and should not pose a security risk. It’s up to YOU to know where fire escapes are and how to use them (see Drills).

Fire ladders

If your home does not have adequate fire escape routes, you can position a rope, rope ladder or fold-away escape ladder by a window or balcony that will allow safe escape. Do NOT leave ladders anywhere where they might be a security risk (see DIY/CRAFT HAZARDS and SECURITY).


Much of the risk of fire comes from flammable materials that are a part of our daily lives—in many cases there are steps we can take to reduce these risks. Some items can be treated to make them fire-resistant or flameproof, and recently furniture manufacturers have developed safer, fire-resistant foams. When buying furniture always check to see if it is fire-resistant (see Combustion-modified foam).

Architects and interior designers are also more aware of fire risks in public buildings and are required to incorporate safer materials and fire-resistant features. At home, however, it is up to YOU to keep to a minimum the amount of dangerous flammable materials.

Fire-retardant treatment

There are various spray treatments designed for upholstered furniture and other flammable household fittings, such as curtains and carpets. Some must be applied by specialists who visit your home—others are available as a DIY spray. All spray-on treatments are water based, which has drawbacks: they will be partly removed by washing, sponging or even when liquids are spilt on them.

DIY sprays can be difficult to use effectively. It’s not always easy to judge whether your furniture is suitable for treatment and it is difficult to estimate the correct rate of application. It is advisable to get treatment done professionally, with a respray at regular intervals.


Most fires in the home happen at night. One precaution worth considering, particularly for children and the elderly, is to wear nightclothes with low flammability (some synthetics—including nylon—will melt onto the skin!). These are either made from low-flammability materials or treated with fire-retardant chemicals. Take notice of any special washing instructions.


In some countries, including Britain, recent legislation means that furniture manufacturers must use only fire-resistant or flameproof foam in their products. CM foam is the most commonly used ‘safer’ foam and unlike normal PVC foam, which will flame and produce smoke and toxic fumes, it melts away or chars—preventing fire from spreading rapidly inside furniture.

New furniture should also be covered in fire-resistant fabrics. Depending on the age of furniture and legislation, both these features should be clearly labelled. If you are buying new furniture ask about fire-resistant features and inspect products for fire safety information.


If you have had furniture for some years it is unlikely to contain CM foam or meet current safety standards. Furniture made within the last 30 years is likely to be dangerous—anything older will probably be made of traditional materials, such as horse hair, which may produce less toxic fumes but may still burn at a surprising rate.


No smoke- or fire-detecting device/alarm is going to help you unless you have planned and rehearsed what you would do in the event of fire—BEFORE A FIRE HAPPENS. Preplanning is essential and it’s up to YOU!


No matter how clear and well-rehearsed fire drills and procedures are—you are most likely to be involved in them in workplaces and schools—they are only helpful if you think yourself into a fire situation. Imagine your surroundings under the sort of conditions a fire can create in seconds: darkness, thick choking smoke and fumes, intense heat and panic. Ask yourself questions, like: How would I get to the fire assembly point from here? What are the obstacles in my way? What if I am in an unusual part of the building?

These considerations are VITAL, but very often you will only have the vaguest knowledge of escape routes from a public building. In a hotel, department store, theatre or sports stadium, for instance, the last thing you may be thinking of is the threat of fire. But you must go through a mental fire drill WHEREVER YOU ARE. Make yourself aware of fire instructions. Look for fire exits. Take note of where staff or stewards are located.

At home

YOU are responsible for thinking through fire risks and escape drills in your home. If children, elderly or disabled people live with you, then YOU are responsible for them too. YOU must plan and rehearse a fire drill with all the members of your household. Could you completely evacuate your home in the middle of the night—in the two minutes it could take for a fire to get out of control?

Walk around your home

If you live in a house with more than one floor, start on the ground floor. This is where your principal escape routes will be—the front and back doors and windows. Make a note of any ground floor windows that have bars on the outside—these will be useless for escape unless they have a release mechanism. Fires are most likely to start in the kitchen or living room—if you have to go through these rooms to get to an exit, you will need to consider which windows you can use instead. Make sure that everyone in the house-including children—is able to unlock doors and windows from the inside and knows where keys are kept.


Laminated or wired glass may prove difficult to break through (see SAFETY FIRST: Glass). Double or treble glazing that is not designed to open fully may be hard to break. Position a hammer or special breaking tool by windows which must be used as escape routes so that they CAN be used as escape routes if fire breaks out.

Go upstairs

Escaping from upstairs bedrooms will probably have to be done at night. It will be dark. How easy are the routes? Keep all passages and hallways CLEAR and consider fitting handrails to guide and support young and elderly people—particularly where there is a steep flight of steps. If it becomes impossible to escape through the ground floor, look at all possible upstairs escape routes. Do any windows open onto flat roofs, for example? If it is not safe to jump, consider installing some kind of fire escape (see Fire ladders).


Plan and rehearse a family fire drill. This should:

  • Indicate where alarm devices are
  • Establish a special alarm signal that is unmistakable
  • Indicate where fire extinguishers are
  • Indicate where escape routes are
  • Nominate special responsibilities, like: an older child to accompany a younger one, a helper for a disabled or elderly person, someone who will phone for help (from a call box or a neighbour’s home)
  • Show where to switch off electricity and gas supplies
  • Give name and address of neighbours who should be alerted—in a multi-occupied building this fire drill should be drawn up with and practised by all of the residents
  • Give location of an assembly point outside
  • Give telephone numbers of emergency services

Practise! Take your family through the fire drill regularly. DON’T just read it, DO IT. In particular, practise difficult escape routes. If these are hazardous, do this as safely as possible—some may be too risky to try except in an emergency. Someone should make sure escape routes are possible, though? If someone comes to stay, remember that they will not know these procedures. Young children could draw or paint their own copies of the fire drill—it will help them to memorize the instructions in it. If you’re staying in a hotel, make sure to read the fire safety information and do a practise walk to the fire exit to familiarize yourself.

Night patrol

Devise a list of things that should be checked before you go to bed at night and get into the habit of going on patrol. Nightly checks should include the following:

  • Make sure you know who is in the house and where they are.
  • Switch off and unplug all electrical appliances in every room, especially televisions.
  • Check that cooker rings and burners are off.
  • Check that fireguards are in place.
  • Turn off gas fires (except pilot lights)—especially portable cylinder gas fires.
  • Unplug electric under/overblankets.
  • Recheck that paraffin stove wicks are completely out.
  • Check that exterior lights are off.
  • Make sure no cigarette ends are left burning.
  • Switch off lights and close doors.
  • Anything else specific to YOUR home.

Smoking kills: Cigarettes cause an enormous number of domestic fires every year. It you are a smoker or you live with one, follow this special drill:

  • DON’T balance cigarettes precariously
  • STUB OUT cigarettes properly and make sure matches are out before discarding
  • PROVIDE deep ashtrays for smokers
  • DON’T smoke if you are tired or drunk
  • DON’T smoke in bed
  • CHECK furniture-feel down the sides of cushions
  • DON’T discard lighted cigarettes in wastepaper bins
  • Remove old newspapers and flammable objects stored under stairs-DON’T build bonfires anywhere in your home
  • DON’T overload power points
  • DON’T let curtains hang down round the back of television sets
  • Get your household wiring checked by an electrician and check all plugs and appliance wiring
  • Replace foam-filled furniture and mattresses if you can or treat them with a fire-retardant spray
  • DON’T use a time switch on unsuitable appliances like electric fires
  • Keep aerosols and flammable substances away from sources of heat and out of direct sunlight—they can explode
  • Keep matches and lighters away from children
  • Don’t leave mirrors and bottles in direct sunlight—reflected and concentrated sunlight can start fires
  • Don’t use open fires in children’s play areas—use a fireguard and do not leave them unattended
  • Don’t plug appliances into light fittings
  • Never overfill pans with fat for frying
  • Keep clutter out of halls, off staircases and keep escape routes CLEAR
  • Do not place candles/hot drinks/vases or anything else on top of the television—you could start a fire
  • Always use correctly-rated fuses in appliances
  • In the event of a power cut, switch off electrical heaters. It’s easy to forget about them and you may go to bed before the power returns


Unfortunately there is no way the threat of fire can be ruled out completely. In the urban environment the human error factor—perhaps a discarded cigarette or a faulty piece of wiring-will always limit the extent to which you can protect yourself. Having taken all the precautions, without totally transforming all buildings, the next step is to learn what to do if you find yourself in a fire.


The safest course of action in any fire situation is to follow the rules for containing it (by closing doors and windows), to evacuate the building and call the fire brigade. This applies to all types of fire which have taken hold at the flame stage-in certain cases you may have to try to put out a small or developing fire.

  • At home: Put your fire drill into action
  • At work: Follow the fire drill
  • In a public place: Seek assistance from responsible members of staff etc and make your way to fire exits as quickly and calmly as possible. Help anyone in difficulty.

At home

Initially, a fire in your home may seem containable or controllable. You may think—perhaps because you want to preserve your belongings or to save troubling the fire brigade-that you can cope with a burning sofa or a flaming television, but you are NOT a trained fire-fighter. You are severely at risk from highly toxic fumes in either of these cases. It would be almost impossible to remain detached or calm. If you tried to put out a fire in that state of mind you could help to spread it. Every decision you take COULD make the difference between life and death.

You might walk into a room, discover a fire and run out-in your shock forgetting to close the door behind you. Your attention would be completely taken by the fire—not the fire-feeding draught of air you have inadvertently created by leaving the door open!

Seconds count

Time is the vital factor in a fire—containing it could give precious minutes to ensure all the occupants of a building reach safety (let the professionals do the rest). Rather than fighting fire, the two watchwords are SLOWING and CONTAINING fire. There are often some simple and fast things you can do to slow the progress of a fire. Equally there are ‘safe’ ways of containing a fire in a room or a section of a building.


Try to deal with domestic fires BEFORE they get out of control. Read and commit this information to memory BEFORE the need arises. In all cases, ACT QUICKLY but stay as calm as possible.

Most materials burn easily—‘synthetics’ can even melt onto the skin

Cross your arms over your chest. Put your hands on your shoulders. This should help to protect your face from the flames

This will fan and spread the flames, which will impede breathing

Roll over slowly to smother the flames

In a carpet, wool blanket, fire blanket or non-synthetic curtains

Restrain them if they are panicking

Trip them up if necessary!

Roll them in a carpet, wool blanket, fire blanket as above
Cool the temperature of the burns as soon as possible with water. Don’t try to remove any clothing which has become stuck to the skin. CALL AN AMBULANCE!


Try to unplug an appliance OR turn off all the power at the consumer unit/fuse box

Only switch off at the mains if you have a flashlight so that you can find your way about

Use a fire blanket or a dry extinguisher—dry powder (blue), C02 (carbon dioxide/black) or halon (green)


Switch off at the mains socket OR Switch off at fuse box/consumer unit








Because of the risk of toxic fumes


Evacuate and call the fire brigade


Do NOT open windows

Do NOT roll back bedding to inspect damage


If necessary, switch off at consumer unit/fuse box


A bucket of water, at least


Because of the possibility of highly-toxic fumes



Do NOT use water or a water extinguisher (red) to put out a fire, even if there is a spillage of burning fuel


On no account try to carry a burning heater


Use a fire blanket or a dry powder (blue) extinguisher. Aim it right into the appliance or at the base of flames


Evacuate and call the fire brigade


  • In the event of a fire involving a gas cylinder Turn off the gas at the cylinder Move it away from the flames Use a fire extinguisher on the flames

  • If you cannot reach the cylinder, or if the fire is spreading GET OUT!

Get well clear of the house, call the fire brigade and tell them a gas cylinder is involved in the fire


Synthetic fabrics and older ‘non-safe’ foams have a tendency to ‘flare up’ suddenly and burn fiercely. Do NOT stand too close


Evacuate! Do NOT attempt to extinguish a fire involving synthetic materials/foams. If the fire is very small and easily smothered, you MUST still evacuate and call the fire brigade


Cool with water or water extinguisher (red). Keep going until smouldering stops. Evacuate to fresh air


  • Try to take burning furniture outside
  • Stay in a room filled with smoke and fumes
  • Open a window to ventilate unless fire is extinguished


Vulnerable to fire from sparks or a dropped cigarette. Most carpets won’t burn rapidly


If the spark or cigarette has just fallen, stamp out fire (or smother). Douse with water to cool


Use fire blanket to smother, or water/water extinguisher (red) to cool


Evacuate. There is a risk of highly-toxic fumes. Call the fire brigade




Replace it immediately to smother the flames


Approach with the blanket held up to protect your face and smother the flames


Cover the pan with a damp towel or chopping board


Move the pan until the fat has cooled


Burning fat/oil and water are a very bad combination. Throwing water on burning fat (or using a water extinguisher) will splash burning fat and spread fire. In some circumstances water will make a fat fire burn extremely fiercely


A chimney fire could be very serious. You may not know you have a chimney fire at first. If you see sparks or flames coming out of anyone’s chimney, you should tell them


Before you do anything else


Move carpets, furniture and any flammable objects away from the fuel , all burning appliance/fireplace. Burning debris is likely to fall down the chimney


This won’t smother the fire, but it will reduce its air intake


Use garden earth to smother the fire in the fireplace


Detergent helps water to smother burning embers. Steam will be produced—this will help dampen the fire further up the chimney


If the room is filled with smoke—or the fire seems to have spread—do NOT waste time? Evacuate and wait for the fire brigade


In all but the most MINOR fire situation, you should implement your fire drill immediately. Everyone in the home or workplace will know what to do and how to escape. Nevertheless, it is impossible to predict how a fire will behave—even in your own home you might find yourself in a situation that you could not have prepared for.

Outside the home or workplace—in a building you are not familiar with—the range of pre-fire precautions that you can take are even more limited. Both these factors make it essential that you know the rules for escaping from a burning building and what to do if you become trapped. Mistakes in these crucial seconds and minutes could cost you your life.

Your priority at all times is to get out of a building as -safely as possible. This means finding a safe way around a blaze and through a ground floor door or window.

Moving through a burning building

There are three rules for moving through a burning building:

  • Test all doors for fire on the other side
  • Close doors/windows as you go
  • Stay as low to the floor as possible

If a door to a room fits well and is closed it can contain fire for some time. Wood in the structure of a building is surprisingly fire resistant. Often after a house fire timbers, though charred, are still in place alter the rest of the house has been gutted. Opening a door without caution could mean that you are suddenly engulfed by flames.

Testing all doors

This is important, because there may be little sign that there is a fire on the other side. In the case of a door which opens towards you, opening the door of a room that contains fire is VERY dangerous—the sudden influx of oxygen can cause flames to flare up and blast anyone in the doorway with ultra-hot air. The door knob (especially if made of metal) is the best conductor of heat. Put the back of your hand to the knob, if it is HOT your hand will jerk away immediately. The back of your hand is usually more responsive to heat. You might burn the skin and you need your fingers! Do NOT open the door.

If the door knob is not hot you may proceed, but before opening the door brace your foot against the bottom of it. Only then open the door by a couple of centimetres. Look into the room to check. If it is safe, open the door and enter. Had the room contained fire your foot would have stopped the door being blown open by a flare-up.

Close all doors

As you proceed, close all doors and windows, behind you. Closed doors hold back fire and closed windows cut down the amount of oxygen reaching a fire.

Stay low

Smoke fills a room from the ceiling down. At all times keep your head near the floor—crawling if necessary—where the air will be cleaner and safer. Staying low also avoids tripping or stumbling over objects. Hold a handkerchief or cloth (wet if possible) over your mouth/nose.


All the same rules as above apply if you live or work in a high-rise building, however there is a greater risk that you will not be able to reach ground level safely. Follow these rules:

  • NEVER use a lift during a fire—you could be trapped if power fails or doors might open automatically onto a blazing floor.
  • NEVER leave your flat or room (in a hotel) without your keys—you may need to retrace your steps so you do not want to be locked out.
  • Set off the fire alarm and bang on other people’s doors to alert them.
  • NEVER try to descend a stairway that is blocked by fire. Climb upwards away from the fire and onto the roof or a balcony (see Trapped!).
  • In very large buildings, if you know which side the fire is burning, make for the other side and use staircases there.

Over 50 per cent of fire deaths are due to toxic fumes and smoke.

Inhaled smoke can irritate the throat causing it to contract in a sudden spasm-closing the airway. Someone found in a smoke-filled room may be unconscious and their breathing may have stopped. You should:

  • Drag victim away from smoke, preferably to safety outside
  • If victim is breathing but unconscious put the victim in the recovery position
  • If breathing has stopped or is difficult, give artificial respiration until help arrives

Fireman’s lift

If you need to rescue an unconscious person, the safest and easiest way of moving them is the fireman’s lift. If you cannot manage, and the danger is great from smoke/fumes or flames, drag the person out of the building any way you possibly can!

  1. Lean forward slightly and at the same time lift casualty’s arm over your shoulder and behind your head. Bend over until your right shoulder is at the same level as the casualty’s stomach.
  1. Pull the casualty across your back and shoulders—they will take the weight. If it helps, you can rest on your right knee. Your right arm around or between the casualty’s legs will add support.
  1. Taking the weight on your right shoulder, reach around the casualty’s legs to hold his/her wrist, and lift. Push yourself up by pressing down with your left hand on your left knee.
  1. Standing up, you can now proceed to take the casualty to safety. The position of the casualty’s head is not ideal if there are head or neck injuries, but there may be no choice.

Lifting an inconscious casualty If necessary, turn the casualty face down. Kneeling at the head, slip hands under the shoulders to the armpits. Firstly, lift the casualty into kneeling position. Then, standing yourself, lift the casualty upright. Proceed with fireman’s lift, 1-4.

Two-person seats

Two people can easily carry even a heavy casualty to safety by making a ‘chair’. Holding your left wrist with your right hand, reach under the casualty and grip the other carrier’s right wrist with your left hand (shown). The casualty holds both carriers’ shoulders for support.

If the casualty has suffered arm injuries, carriers will have to provide extra support. Carriers should clasp each other’s forward hands under the casualty’s thighs, using padding in a hook-like grip (shown). At the same time, reach behind the casualty’s back and either grip clothing or the other carrier’s upper arm.


If your escape route to the ground floor is blocked and there is no way that you can escape from the building safely, you must try to raise the alarm and signal for help-position yourself where you can be rescued, as far from the fire as possible. Protect yourself from the actual fire and smoke and fumes.

  • Go to a room (which is not on fire) with a window. Close doors, windows and fanlights.
  • If you cannot get out onto a balcony or roof, slow the approach of the fire. If there is water in the room, douse the walls and door—this will slow the flames. Block any gaps or holes that will let smoke into the room. Use rolled-up cloth or blankets (wet, if possible) to block cracks and openings round doors and windows.
  • Open a window and attract attention by shouting or waving.
  • In an office building, throw paper out of the window—it should catch the eye of someone below.
  • If a window is sealed and cannot be opened use a chair or your feet to knock out the glass. If you have to use your hands wrap them in cloth or a garment for protection. Use your elbows if you are wearing long sleeves.
  • Break double- or treble-glazed windows with a hammer.
  • Laminated glass is difficult to break, but keep trying. Once all the glass is broken, it may push out of the frame.
  • If there is a balcony or flat roof that you can reach safely, get out on to it and close the window or door behind you.
  • If you have to climb through a broken window, knock out jagged glass and place a blanket or clothing over the base.
  • If you are on the first floor and the ground below is soft it may be safe to drop. Throw pillows or bedding on to the ground to break your fall.
  • Hang from a window sill or ledge at full stretch. Just before you drop, hold on with one hand and with the free hand push your body away from the wall. Keep your feet and knees together with legs slightly bent, head tightly on chest.
  • When you let go, relax and try not to resist the ground. Do not jump or spring away.
  • Don’t try to break a fall with your arms. Use them to protect your head.
  • If you can make a sheet or curtain rope, this will at least shorten your fall. Make sure it is tightly secured.
  • Do not jump from an upper storey. It is safer to position and protect yourself properly and await rescue.

Jumping to safety: With any type of fall there is a risk of injury. You should ONLY consider this as a last resort to escape fire. Risks increase greatly with every storey above the first floor. Jumping from the third floor and above must only be considered if there really is no other choice. Even if the ground is not hard, the fall could prove fatal.


If you can make your way to the roof, move with extreme caution. If it is a pitched roof, stay on the windward side away from smoke. Attract attention by waving and shouting, NOT by throwing roof tiles or heavy objects to the ground—you could kill or injure someone below.


Most roof surfaces are extremely treacherous. Slates or tiles may easily become dislodged beneath you. Sheet roofs may easily collapse-causing you to fall through. Assess the risk!

Getting help

Once you have escaped from a burning building you should still follow your pre-planned drill. This will help you account for the occupants of a building. The fire brigade must be called immediately-do NOT assume this has already been done. Delegate someone to telephone from a call box or from a neighbour’s home (see Equipment & drills) and make sure the full address and location of the fire is given.


Do not let ANYONE other than a trained fire-fighter enter a burning building. However brave you think you are, an untrained ill-equipped person is no match for a blaze. Resist the urge.


Get clear as soon as possible. Do NOT hamper fire-fighting or rescue operations. Beware falling debris—the whole building may collapse. If you are injured, make the fact known to medical personnel—but accept the fact that the most life threatening injuries must be dealt with first. People may be very frightened or upset. Try to keep calm and reassure others.