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Up in a Puff of Smoke

Fire safety

Not long ago, on my way to show a Lincoln Park home, all traffic came to a halt. Fire trucks with lights flashing had blocked the intersection of Fremont and Webster in Lincoln Park, and I could not get by. Eventually, I turned around and pulled down an alley so I could continue on to my appointment. As I passed the scene of the fire, I saw lots of trucks, equipment, and activity, and I overheard one of the men saying that the fire was now out. I drove on.

I thought nothing more of this until I listened to my voicemail the next morning. A friend had called to say that it had been his home that had caught fire, and he and his family were now scrambling to find temporary housing. They were hoping I could help them.

I was shocked at the immediacy of the crisis. This is a family I know well and whose home I have visited. It had been substantially improved and showed beautifully. I remembered how much they had invested of themselves in their home, and I realized how hard this would be for them.

The fire department believed the fire was started by an extension cord connected to a printer. The heat of the fire was so intense that the roof collapsed into the home’s upper level. What did not burn was ruined by smoke or water.

The good news is that my friends were out of town with their two children and everyone was safe. But it made me stop and ask myself, “What if the fire had been in my home?” My husband and I have never discussed what to do in the event of a fire. We live vertically in a three-story home (as is typical of single-family homes and condos in downtown Chicago) and we don’t have a plan. I realized that not only do we need to think about this, but we need to discuss fire prevention and emergency procedures with our nanny so that she is prepared as well.

Thankfully, there are many resources for home fire safety including the Home Safety Council [1]. Their website includes valuable tips on developing a home fire escape plan [2]. Here are some of their major points:

Make a fire escape plan. The best exit from your home may seem obvious today, but if you awaken in the middle of the night to a smoke-filled, burning home, all that can change – especially for small children. Plan in advance how you will get everyone out. Know what you will do if your primary exits are blocked, and where you will meet once everyone is out. Then, practice your plan together as a family.

Install and check smoke detectors. Chicago building code requires smoke detectors in residential dwellings. When you buy a home, your professional home inspector [3] will verify that the home includes properly positioned, working smoke detectors. But after closing, it is your responsibility to maintain them. Just a month ago, a Chicago man died of smoke inhalation during a fire in his home. His house had smoke detectors installed, but they were not working. Press the test button on your smoke detectors each month to ensure they are operating, and replace the batteries or unit if necessary.

Get a home fire extinguisher [4]. For small, contained fires, a home fire extinguisher [5] can mean the difference between a few hundred dollars in damage and losing your home. Adults in the home should be familiar with the extinguisher’s use, including the PASS acronym (Pull, Aim, Squeeze, Sweep).

Protect the irreplaceable. Your family’s safety is the top priority, but it’s also important to be able to pick up the pieces after a fire. This means protecting important documents, photos, and possessions from destruction. Keeping a safe deposit box at a bank or a fire-proof safe in your home are two ways of accomplishing this. Now that we are in the Internet age, digital photos and documents can also be regularly backed up to email accounts or Web storage services [6] – and thereby out of harm’s way.

For a more comprehensive guide to home fire safety, see the Chicago Fire Department’s page on the topic [7].

In an earlier blog entry [8], I wrote about how seeing the AIDS orphans in East Africa really struck a chord with me. Hearing about the fire that destroyed my friends’ home reminds me again to appreciate the many blessings in my life. It is frightening to contemplate how quickly our lives can change, regardless of how safe we feel.

One of my real estate clients ends every call with a reminder to “hug your children today.” I cherish that sentiment, and I do try to hug my children and tell them I love them every single day. But the night after this fire, I hugged them a little tighter and a bit longer.