How to Survive when there’s Fire

by Ellon Labana

How to Survive when there’s Fire

Written by by Henrylito D. Tacio

“It was the last day of work before the holiday celebrations so everyone was excited to go home,” recalled Kyle (not his real name), one of the employees of Research Now SSI (Survey Sampling International), who survived the fire that gutted the New City Commercial Center (NCCC) Mall in Davao City two days before in 2017.

About 10 minutes before the clock struck 10 in the morning, the SSI employees smelled something burning in their office, which was located at the fourth floor of the mall.  It was just a matter of seconds that smoke started coming out from their air-conditioners.

Everything happened so fast because in just a few seconds the smoke started to get heavy and dark.  Terrified, they all shouted and ran immediately to the nearest fire exit near the locker area.

Putting out fire

“When I got there, I was lucky enough that I was able to get my bag from my locker while hands were still shaking,” Kyle recalled.  “People were already crowded as we approached the fire exit.”

Then he heard someone shouting, “Go back, the fire exits is unpassable.  It’s so hot inside.”  So, they went back inside and as they approached the attendance area, people from the second fire exit came rushing towards them.  They were told that the fire exit was also unpassable.

What happened next was something coming out from a movie script.  All of a sudden, light bulbs exploded and smoke was already getting thick and blanketed the whole place.  Most cried for help when the lights went out as darkness engulfed the area.  They were panicking and shouting. 

“It was almost zero visibility and we were still trapped in the locker room,” Kyle recalled with horror.  “I really thought I was already going to die because I was already having difficulty breathing.”

The sprinklers reportedly did not work and some who had water with them tried to throw water in the air.  “I even got some water on me which apparently turned into black as stains on my jacket,” he said.

They didn’t have any choice but to return inside the office.  “I had no idea where to go as everyone was panicking and running just to be safe,” Kyle said.  “Suddenly, I saw someone from the lobby waving and shouting to go to the lobby area’s exit towards the mall’s theater so I ran as fast as I could going there.”

The smoke in the third and second floors were not as heavy as in the fourth floor.  “So, I can still see the stairs as I was rushing down and I was able to get out safely on the second floor’s exit near the food court,” he said.

When Kyle was out, he immediately called his sister, hurried home and started crying really hard when he got home.  “I have colds so the mucus and saliva I was spitting had black ashes on them,” he said.  “I can just imagine how heavy the smoke was especially to the people still trapped inside.”

Fire drill

The fire raged for 31 hours; it started at 9:35 in the morning of December 23 and was declared under control at 5:15 in the morning the following day.  Thirty-six of Kyle’s colleagues were declared dead.  Melvin Gaa, a mall employee trained for emergency and disaster response, also didn’t make it as he tried to rescue those who were trapped.

The fire happened in broad daylight.  Was there a way some deaths could have been avoided?  

It’s possible, according to the information posted by my friend, Dr. Teofredo R. Esguerra, on his Facebook.  The only flight surgeon in Southeast Asia, he has been lecturing and sharing his expertise on disaster management.

The information, taken from the website of the Tufts University in the United States, gives some basics about fire safety.  First and foremost, you need to familiarize yourself to “where you are” (inside a mall, for instance).  Be sure to know how to reach the two (yes, not just one!) nearest exits.

Bear this in mind, too: In a fire situation, smoke is blinding and will bank down in the rooms and hallways.  To escape to safety in a situation where there is already smoke, you have may to crouch or crawl. 

“By always being aware of your surroundings, your knowledge of the nearest two exits, and having a plan will greatly increase your ability to deal with sudden emergencies,” the information said.

Now, what if you are heard of an announcement of fire or discover yourself in a fire?  Here are the things you need to do: Move quickly to the nearest accessible exit (which you have already known in the beginning).  If you have discovered a fire, notify and assist others to evacuate along the way.  If the building fire alarm is not yet sounding, manually activate the alarm pull station located near the exit.

After doing that, get out of the building as quickly as possible.  Don’t worry about some of the valuables you have left; life is more important than those materials.

More often than not, there are fire extinguishers all over the building.  When should these be used and is it alright to use it in case of fire?  The information offers these tips: Only if you are trained and confident in fire extinguisher use.  Only if the fire is small in size (no larger than a small trash can).  If you do fight the fire, use only one extinguisher and then evacuate the building.

By the way, you are not obligated to fight fires of any size.  If you have any doubt, do not attempt to fight the fire.

Just remember this: Total and immediate evacuation is the safest.

Now, what if you are caught in the middle of a smoke, what should you do?  Drop to hands and knees and crawl towards the nearest exit.  Stay low, smoke will rise to ceiling level first.  Hold your breath as much as possible.  Breathe through your nose and use a filter (such as a shirt, towel or handkerchief).

During a fire incident, the number one enemy is not the fire but the smoke you get inhaled.  “People are scared of the flames and think it is the main killer,” Daniel D. Solana, a Davao firefighter said.  “It’s actually the lack of oxygen that will kill a person faster.”

“The Merck Manual of Medical Information” explains: “Inhalation of chemicals released in the smoke, such as hydrogen chloride, phosgene, sulfur dioxide, and ammonia, can swell and damage the lungs and trachea.  Eventually, the small airways leading to the lung narrow, further obstructing airflow.”

Smoke can also contain chemicals that poison the body’s cells, such as carbon monoxide and cyanide.  “High levels of carbon monoxide in the blood may cause confusion or disorientation or may even be fatal,” the Merck manual said.

A team effort in putting out a fire

If ever you are trapped in a room due to fire or smoke, call 911 or the emergency line in your area to report your location and conditions.  Close as many doors as possible between you and the fire.  Wet and place cloth material around or under the door to help prevent smoke from entering.  If the room has an outside window, be prepared to signal to someone outside.

Fire, science tells us, is the visible effect of the process of combustion – a special type of chemical reaction. It occurs between oxygen in the air and some sort of fuel. The products from the chemical reaction are completely different from the starting material.

The fuel must be heated to its ignition temperature for combustion to occur. However, three things must be present in order for a fire to exist: heat, fuel and oxygen. This is known as the fire triangle, according to Sheffar S. Lajarani, the officer-in-charge of the Bureau of Fire Protection in Bansalan, Davao del Sur. 

“Combustion is when fuel reacts with oxygen to release heat energy,” explained the website of Science Learning Hub. “Combustion can be slow or fast depending on the amount of oxygen available. Combustion that results in a flame is very fast and is called burning. Combustion can only occur between gases.”

Fuels come in three forms: solids, liquids and gases, Lajarani pointed out.  Examples of solid are wood, dried leaves, clothing materials and books.  Gasoline and kerosene are examples of liquids while gases refers to liquified petroleum gas and methane.

Fire incidents happen all the time.  Oftentimes, there are victims and those who are directly hit are most likely to experience a fate worse than death – that of undergoing agonizing pain of burns.

When I was 18, I learned the value of knowing what to do in an emergency.  It was 4:30 in the morning, and my 12-year-old sister Elena was too excited about a school field trip the next day to sleep.  She had been asked to bring rice for her classmates, so she got out of bed and headed for the kitchen of our home while the rest of the family was still sleeping.

Elena put rice and water into a kettle, and placed it on top of our earthen stove.  Then she emptied the last of a kerosene container onto the firewood and lit it.  The wood initially caught, but the flames died down a few seconds later.  She found another can that she thought contained kerosene and poured it straight onto the dying fire.

In fact, it was gasoline, which immediately burst into flames.  Shocked, Elena dropped the can, spilling gasoline over her feet.  In an instant, she was literally on fire.

Just at that moment, I walked into the kitchen to get a drink of water and was horrified to see Elena engulfed by flames.  Remembering my first aid training at secondary school, I grabbed a wet blanket that was soaking in a laundry basin and wrapped it around her to smother the flames.

Elena’s cries of pain woke the entire family, and we rushed her to the hospital – still wrapped in the wet blanket.

My quick action probably saved my little sister’s life.  “If you had not been around, it would have been worse,” the emergency room doctor told me later. “Good thing you knew what to do.”

It took for my sister three months to recover from the burns to her feet and legs.  She was lucky; some 120,000 people – many of them children under five – die from fire-related burns each year, according to the World Health Organization.

Burns are classified as minor, moderate, or severe.  “The severity determines how they are predicted to heal and whether complications are likely,” the Merck manual notes.  “Doctors determine the severity of the burn by estimating the percentage of the body surface that has been burned.”

A burn that involves only the top layer of skin is the least severe.  “The skin is red and dry and the burn hurts,” explained the book, “Community First Aid and Safety.”  “These burns usually heal in 5-6 days and don’t leave scars.”

Deeper burns, like those experienced by my sister, are also red.  “They have blisters that may open and weep clear fluid,” the book said.  “The burned skin may look blotchy.  These burns are usually painful and the area often swells.”

Some burns destroy all the layers of the skin and the tissues underneath.  They can even destroy bones.  These burns look brown or blackish.  The tissues underneath may appear white.  These burns can sometimes be surprisingly pain-free because nerve endings have been destroyed.  These burns, however, are critical.

“A critical burn needs immediate medical attention,” the book said.  “Critical burns can be life-threatening.  It isn’t always easy to tell how severe a burn is right after it has happened.”

In case of fire, what can you do to save a person?  The first minutes of an emergency can be critical, to say the least.  Experts estimate that once the heart stops, there is a window of four to six minutes to restore circulation before brain cells begin to die.

First aid depends on the severity of the burn.  The rules below apply to mild to moderate burns:

Running cool water over a burn may alleviate some of the pain.  Mild burns may be treated with burn creams – never use butter.  Any burn that encircles a body part (such as a wrist or finger), or any significant burn to the face, should be evaluated by a physician.

Cover burns with sterile bandage to keep them clean and dry.  If blisters form, don’t open them.

For third-degree burn, which leave skin charred and turn it white or cream-colored, take the following steps:

Call the emergency medical services in the area.  Do not move the victim unless he’s still in danger.  Don’t try to remove the victim’s clothing.  Cover the burns by laying a clean sheet or blanket over the burned area.  Protect the victim from draughts and keep him dry.

Raised burned areas above the level of the heart if possible.  Monitor the victim and proceed with steps for cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if needed.

CPR is the cornerstone of emergency medicine.  There are a lot of reasons why someone’s breathing or heartbeat might stop and burn is one of them.  The required action is this: Put oxygen into the victim’s lungs by performing rescue breathing, and circulate it through the body by doing chest compression.

Dehydration develops in people with third-degree burns, because fluid seeps from the blood to the burned tissues.  “Shock develops if dehydration is severe,” the Merck manual says.  Dehydration is treated with large amounts of fluids given intravenously.

“A person who has gone into shock as a result of dehydration is also given oxygen through a face mask,” the Merck manual points out.

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