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How to save your life in a fire or other emergency

For those who missed the March 15 Fire and Life Safety presentation by Matthew Leet, here’s a recap of key information he shared:

The tragic Ghost Ship fire in Oakland has reminded us all that fire can kill very quickly. And it is not the only danger that we may face at home and in public places. A few basic precautions can save your life — but only if you follow them!

Fire safety at home

Your biggest lifesaver: The working smoke detector

  • Did you know that three out of five people who die in a fire at home have non-working or missing smoke detectors?
  • Why do smoke detectors save lives? Almost all deaths in fires are caused by smoke inhalation. Smoke can cause unconsciousness in just a few minutes, so you have very little time to escape once a fire breaks out. If you are sleeping, you might not even wake up — unless a smoke detector warns you.
  • Your smoke detector can only save your life if it’s working! Replace the batteries in yours twice a year when you change your clocks for Daylight Savings Time. Test the alarm often to be sure it’s working properly. Replace the entire smoke detector every 10 years.
  • Make sure you have enough smoke detectors in your house. Position them inside or just outside bedrooms, in the basement and garage, and at least 10 feet from your kitchen (to avoid false alarms).
  • If you hear the detector go off and there’s no obvious reason for the alarm — such as something you just burned in the kitchen — get out!

Beware of “the invisible killer”

  • While natural gas has an additive you can smell if there’s a gas leak, carbon monoxide is a lethal odorless, colorless gas that’s created when fuels burn incompletely.
  • If you burn natural gas, propane or wood at home, you need a separate carbon monoxide detector or a smoke alarm that includes this function.
  • Put the detector near any appliances you have that might give off carbon monoxide, especially if they’re near where you sleep (such as gas-burning wall heaters).

Extinguishing small fires

  • Fire grows very rapidly, so your best bet is always to get out of the house, then call 911.
  • But to put out small fires that are confined to a container (such as a trash can), you can keep a charged multi-purpose fire extinguisher where you can easily grab it (kitchen, garage, etc.). Replace or refill it every five years.
  • If you use an extinguisher, remember to PASS:
    • Pull the pin
    • Aim at the base of the fire (not the upper flames)
    • Squeeze the trigger
    • Sweep back and forth until extinguisher is empty

Talk with your family about what to do if a fire breaks out

  • Walk through your home and identify two ways out of every room. Then make sure those exit points are clear of furniture and other obstacles.
  • Tell your children how to escape from each room, and emphasize that they should get low to the ground where it will be easier to breathe, since smoke rises.
  • Have a plan for anyone you live with who might not hear a smoke alarm or who will need help evacuating.
  • Don’t risk your life to save a pet; most will get out on their own when you open a door or window to escape.
  • Have a designated place for everyone to meet up outside — but not where fire engines will need to park.
  • Never go back into a burning building! Wait for firefighters, who have the equipment and training to rescue anyone left inside.


Fire safety in public places

The Ghost Ship fire was a tragic reminder that public places can be very dangerous. Not only fire, but an earthquake or act of violence could cause danger, panic and chaos. To stay safe, do the following any time you enter a public place, including movie theaters, clubs, stadiums and restaurants:

  • Immediately identify ALL exits. The one closest to you may become a “pinch point” if too many people try to use it, or it may turn out to be blocked, so know all your options. Create a mental map of the place that you can use to get out if there is smoke, loss of lighting or panic.
  • Take note of any obstacles such as furniture that might prevent you from getting to or using an exit; test exit doors to be sure they are unlocked if you can.
  • Identify any dangers: Flammable or combustible items, use of pyrotechnics or candles, unsafe wiring, confined spaces, excessive number of people, lack of adequate exits or access to them.
  • Observe if there are mandatory safety features like lighted exit signs, sprinkler systems, fire alarm pull boxes and fire extinguishers. If not, the venue is dangerous – likely in other ways that aren’t as obvious, too.
  • LEAVE any venue that seems unsafe! Losing the cost of admission is nothing compared to losing your life.
  • Talk to management if you see something unsafe that they could address immediately. But if there is grave or immediate danger, get out fast and then call 911.
  • If there is a fire, get low to the ground and find your way out as quickly as you can.
  • Only follow the crowd if you can tell that people are getting out quickly that way. Exits can be blocked. If people are piling up rather than streaming out, quickly look for another exit to use.
  • Always have a designated spot outside the venue to meet up in case you get separated from the people you came with. Don’t assume you’ll be able to call; one of you might drop and lose your phone in the confusion of an emergency evacuation.


Want to know more?

  • The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is the most comprehensive resource for home, workplace and public fire safety. Check out their site at
  • If you have questions about this information or about fire safety at UCOP, contact

Comments ( 2 )

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  1. Elizabeth Ellis April 4, 2017 Reply

    thank you Matt — I’m going to forward this to the rest of my family!

  2. Tracy FitzGerald April 4, 2017 Reply

    Matt, Great presentation, full of all kinds of helpful information.

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