What to do in the event of a fire is surely pretty common knowledge, isn’t it? So why these technical recommendations?

In the course of our education work, which is undertaken primarily by fire departments around the country, we often see that people lack basic knowledge about what to do in the event of a fire. We see that across all sectors of society and all age groups. That’s hardly surprising, given that, thankfully, fires are rare events.

Even so, it’s critically important that people know what to do in the event of a fire before a fire actually happens. In a U.S. fire safety video made more than 25 years ago there was this key phrase: "You have to have a plan". We share that approach: we want to make sure people have a plan.

What sorts of scenarios are you talking about?

We’ve discovered that it makes a big difference whether the fire is in a multi-dwelling building or a single-dwelling building. The appropriate fire plan for a multi-dwelling building is different than for a fire in your own single-dwelling home or the one next door. In a single-dwelling building, what you need to do depends on where you happen to be in relation to the fire. Is it upstairs from you or downstairs? It’s all about the physical characteristics of the smoke and how it spreads.

Is it even possible to condense the essential fire-survival course of action into a few simple rules?

That’s a fair question. Opinions on certain points vary even among our specialist fire-safety educators. That is why we endeavored to achieve as broad as possible a consensus view on what people should do in the event of a fire, focusing in particular on fires in the home.

But on closer examination of the problem it became clear that it is not possible to formulate a solution in the form of five simple rules of thumb that apply in all scenarios.

So what does that mean?

It means we have formulated technical recommendations applicable in four basic scenarios: a fire in your own apartment in a multi-dwelling building, a fire in another apartment in a multi-dwelling building, smoke contamination in the stairwell of a multi-dwelling building, and a fire in a multi-level single-dwelling building.

For each scenario, we plotted a recommended course of action on a timeline, starting from the moment of discovery of the fire. The recommended courses of action are supported by detailed background information. Each scenario is also supported by a flowchart that provides a quick overview of the exact sequence of steps to take.

What are the three biggest mistakes that people make – irrespective of whether they’re in a single or multi-dwelling building?

  • Most people will remember what they were taught as a child: if a fire breaks out in your apartment, you’re supposed to run to the window and yell for help; the fire brigade will then come with an aerial ladder and rescue you. Unfortunately, that is often not the best course of action. In certain cases the fire brigade will indeed be able to rescue you using an aerial ladder, but that can take a while, and in any event, aerial ladder rescues are not feasible if the window faces onto an enclosed courtyard or is more than 8 levels up. Regrettably, there have been several cases where people have taken precisely this approach, only to be forced to leap for their lives.
  • When fleeing a burning apartment, people often leave their entrance door open. This allows fire – and more importantly, smoke – to spread into the stairwell, blocking an otherwise safe escape route for fellow residents.
  • A fire breaks out in your apartment, and you run around the entire building urging your fellow residents to flee.
  • And what are the solutions?

  • If a fire breaks out in a room you are in, you should leave the room immediately.
  • Close the door behind you. Even standard internal doors will withstand fire and smoke for a certain time. Every door that’s closed behind you gives you that much more time to escape.
  • Warning other building residents, particularly those living on floors above you, may result in your escape route being cut off. Therefore, when fleeing your apartment you should warn, at the very most, only people on the same level as you or on levels below you. If you’ve closed your apartment door behind you then, thanks to the building codes here in Germany, people in the other apartments will generally not be in any danger. Leave it to the fire brigade to decide whether the building should be evacuated – they have the necessary equipment to do it safely!
  • Isn’t the document rather lengthy?

    Yes, it’s more than 10 pages long. But you have to remember that the full text is intended primarily for our specialist fire safety educators. These days you can’t necessarily expect ordinary people to read lengthy technical documents like this, so the idea is to equip the specialists with the resources they need in order to be able to explain the rationale and background behind certain recommended courses of action.

    Our other aim in creating this technical recommendation is to achieve standardization across all players in Germany’s fire protection sector. As the national committee for Germany’s two leading associations for fire protection practitioners, we have a good chance of getting everyone talking about these issues with one voice.

    Where can people find your technical recommendations?

    The document is available on our homepage at www.brandschutzaufklaerung.de . You will also find it on the German Fire Services Association website at www.feuerwehrverband.de and on the German Fire Protection Association website at www.vfdb.de . We also work closely with the smoke alarm advocacy group Forum Brandrauchprävention, with whom we have launched a campaign entitled "You have 120 seconds to escape."

    The campaign provides a concise, visual guide on what do in the event of a fire and is available at www.rauchmelder-lebensretter.de/120sek/ . Our objective is also to communicate our fire-survival recommendations via residential real estate companies and other operators of housing stock so that we can get our message across to as many people as possible.

    We’ve already encountered strong interest among these multipliers. For instance, in Berlin’s Marzahn district we can point to an excellent example of how our technical recommendations have been summarized as a graphic for tenants.