Childcare centers come in many shapes and sizes, and childcare programs may be housed in public schools, basements, churches, homes, and old renovated buildings. One factor these structures have in common is their contents: children.
Imagine a fire occurring during nap time in a childcare facility housing 20 young children. Only a few minutes earlier, one preschooler awakened and went to the restroom. The smoke alarms are sounding; heat and dense black smoke are collecting rapidly within the rooms. The children are beginning to panic as the caregivers try to evacuate the building and save the lives of their charges. Can you see how easy it would be to overlook the child in the restroom?
- During a fire of this nature, caregivers should be aware of these facts:
- Lungs will absorb carbon monoxide 210 faster than they will oxygen, and carbon monoxide kills!
- Caregivers may have as little as three minutes to evacuate all the children before the heat reaches 1,000°F within the building.
- Smoke may fill the room quickly making it difficult to find the door and difficult or impossible to find a child in a smoke-filled room.
- In most cases, smoke will kill a child before the fire ever reaches him or her.
How can a childcare center battle such a challenge? The answer is simple: planning and preparation, education, and practice.
Make sure caregiver and child who is old enough to speak, knows where all the exits are. Do not practice using just one exit. Firefighters often find children 10 years old and younger about five feet from the door that they use most often because these children did not think to use another exit. Therefore, be sure every child knows where at least two exits are located. Remember that windows also can serve as exits.
When the alarm sounds, the top priority should be to get everyone outside the building and to a prearranged location. Select an area a safe distance from the building, preferably in front of the building. Avoid using a driveway or the middle of the parking lot where a child would be in danger of injury from cars or emergency vehicles.
Having all children and adults at this "meeting place" ensures that caregivers can give an accurate head count to the firefighters when they arrive. Also, if any children leave the building by another exit, they will know where to join the group. Every firefighter will risk his or her life to save the life of a child or adult. Firefighters will fight a fire differently if they are assured that everyone is out safely.
Teach children that they should never try to hide from fire. The most common hiding places are in closets or bathrooms, under beds, or behind larger pieces of furniture. Also, a firefighter in full gear can appear to be frightening to a small child. Teach children that they should always go to the firefighter.
You can help prepare children for the possibility of a fire by inviting your local firefighters to visit the childcare program and provide a fire safety education program. After the children are comfortable with the firefighters, ask a firefighter to put on the full gear so children will not be frightened.
Childcare programs should develop and conduct evacuation drills monthly. If you have an alarm system that automatically notifies the fire department, you will need to tell your fire department about the drill before it occurs. However, do not tell the children and staff that this is a drill. This will help you observe problems or difficulties that might happen in a true emergency. Also, be sure staff practice at least two different evacuation routes.
At the sound of the alarm, everyone should rise and leave quickly and quietly in a single file. Silence is very important so that instructions can be heard and understood. Walk; do not run. Running may cause confusion and injury.
In addition to these monthly evacuation drills, you should conduct smoke drills to prepare staff and children for potential problems or emergency situations. One activity to do is to hang a large poster board with the word "SMOKE" and a drawing of smoke (for children that cannot read) in the center of the corridor, about three-to-four feet above the floor. When the children and staff see the sign, they should turn around and use an alternate exit. If a second exit does not exist, or if it is also blocked by smoke or fire, the children and staff should drop down low and crawl past the smoke sign.
Another suggestion to simulate a blocked exit is to have a person holding a sign that says "EXIT BLOCKED BY FIRE" or use a sign that depicts a fire in front of a door. Yet another situation might be a sign that says "HEAVY SMOKE -- CAN'T SEE" or a drawing showing thick smoke. In this case, children may have to crawl in a single file with their hands holding the feet of the child or caregiver in front of them to find the exit. (This requires practice!) By practicing situations such as these, both staff and children will be better prepared to react in a true emergency situation.
As part of fire safety preparation, children show know how to call 911. Consider teaching a 911 song or poem to reinforce the numbers and let children practice dialing on an unplugged phone or toy.
Teach children about smoke detectors: why and where they are installed, how they work, and the sounds that they make when they detect smoke. When preparing for fire safety with children, include learning about the sound from a smoke detector and what it means. Remember to regularly change batteries to avoid the alarm going off due to low batteries and risk frightening children.
Remember, the main objective is to get everyone out of the building as quickly and safely as possible, and then notify the fire department. Do not try to fight the fire with fire extinguishers. Using a fire extinguisher correctly takes practice. Using one incorrectly can waste valuable time and even cause the fire to spread more quickly. Concentrate on removing everyone from the building and let the fire department fight the fire!
William Jeffries, Hopkinsville Fire Department
Jane Alexander, Service Dog Trainers, Hopkinsville, KY
The Learn Not to Burn curriculum is available through the National Fire Protection Association, 1 Batterymarch Park, Quincy, MA 00269-9101; 617-770-3000; www.nfpa.org.