I was driving home down 71 South one day a few years ago when I passed the American Red Cross building on my right, just off the highway. Their big message board was lit up with the words “DON’T FORGET, OCTOBER IS NATIONAL FIRE DRILL MONTH!” This instantly got my mommy senses thinking. We had never done a fire drill at home as a family. With three young boys, I thought it was about time we should.
I arrived home with my mind racing about how we might create a fire drill. Changing out of my work clothes, I noticed our red throw blanket over the back of one of our chairs. It struck me that the red blanket would make a great “fake fire” to use in the fire drill.
My husband and I decided to sit down as a family with our three children and talk about the idea of practicing an at home fire drill. We agreed that our kids would get tucked into each of their own beds just like it was bedtime. Then my husband would wait for a quiet, unsuspecting moment and yell, “FIRE! FIRE!” I picked an exit to stand in front of while holding the red blanket and shaking it vigorously to mimic a fire. When the boys all came running out of their bedrooms, I had essentially blocked an exit with our “fire” and now they had to figure out how to escape our home safely. We did this over and over again, each time changing the exit I blocked, whether it was a door, window, etc. We made the drills increasingly harder and the exits more difficult to find.
When the drills were over, we sat down and talked about the different scenarios. We talked about the worry we felt about our pets and what we would do if someone got separated from the others. We talked about the first one to get out would run to a neighbor to call 911. We talked about feeling the doors for heat and getting low to the floor and covering their mouths with cloth. We talked about getting out of the house and then staying safely outside and not going back for any reason.
This was a fun and new experience for our family, but the discussion afterwards was scary and some tears were shed. What if the dogs couldn’t get out? What if one of the kids lost their favorite toy or had to be outside in the dark in their pajamas? There was so much to talk about and to emotionally process for all of us. It was a tough but brave family exercise.
My husband and I felt proud that we had taken the time to do these drills. It felt silly at first, almost unnecessary. As we talked with our boys, we were able to give them tools for their safety. We learned that it was important to support our boys emotionally while their minds raced with their first real thoughts of a possible house fire. We were purposely fraying their fabric of safety by asking them to imagine the worst. It felt a little bit cruel, especially seeing their wide eyes as we talked. They were so young. In my mind, that made it even more important to practice the real steps they would need to find safety. It felt like a proud parenting moment to us both that night after they went to bed.
Years later, I arrived home at 9 p.m. to find everyone asleep in their beds. As I walked through the front door, I instantly smelled something that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I ran downstairs toward the smell, passing my husband asleep in our bed. Looking down the hall, I saw the reflection of flames on the laundry room door. My heart leapt to my throat as terror seized me. I immediately turned around and started yelling, “FIRE! FIRE!”
My boys all came running out of their bedrooms on different floors and out of the front door. My husband ran to get the fire extinguisher and put out a small fire that had started in the outlet above our clothes dryer. Thankfully, the fire was just starting and had yet to even set off the smoke detectors. We were all safe and the fire was extinguished.
For days after, I cried a lot about all of the “what-ifs.” What if I had stayed late at work that night and had not woken up my family? What if I had met a girlfriend out that night for a drink? What if we hadn’t had a fire extinguisher in the house and the fire had destroyed our home or killed a pet? I kept thinking that the smoke detectors hadn’t even started sounding yet. My family was still sleeping in all of their beds, unaware of the fire that had started. The what-ifs really haunted me for a while. But, the realization that a part of our home was actually on fire that night and that we had successfully avoided tragedy eventually calmed my fears. We were so very lucky. We were safe and so was our home.
October is National Fire Drill Month. I urge you to buy a fire extinguisher for your home. Change the batteries in your smoke detectors and take the time to do a family fire drill. Make the drills something your family does together and really do the work of talking about the fire drill after it is done. I have learned firsthand that a fire’s threat is truly real. You will not regret preparing. I never have.