Friday, June 3, 2011

When Their Life Is On The Line, Will Your Child Wake Up?

House fires are one of the most lethal childhood killers that a family confronts. With every year that passes, there are around 380,000 residential home fires, which claim the lives of around 800 kids and seriously injure tens of thousands of others. When we say "seriously injure," we mean it. Anyone who’s ever visited a burn unit knows just how catastrophic and life-altering fire-related injuries can be. Fire safety is also an area where a little bit of planning can often mean the difference between life and death. But while many parents take the time to studiously study any sex-offenders who may be in the neighborhood, few do all that's necessary to protect their children from a house fire; something that poses a far greater threat. (Put in other terms, it would take registered sex-offenders around 1,600 years or more to kill as many children as are killed by fire in just one year, at current statistical rates.) Needless to say, a little bit of prevention focused on this area would be time well spent.

One aspect of fire safety that is especially neglected is the night-time fire drill. Most fatal house fires occur at night. This means that waking up to the smoke detector and getting out quickly is probably what will determine whether or not your child lives or dies. Yet tests done in child care centers during nap time have also revealed that a large majority of kids will sleep right through the sound of your common household variety fire alarm. (Side note: Fire alarms in commercial child care centers and schools are commercial systems which are much louder, so you needn't worry about this issue at their school.) Such tests beg an important question: when their life is on the line, will your child wake up? If not, there is a crucial flaw in your family's fire safety plan, which is why we advocate that all families conduct a night-time fire drill with their children. So...

After the kids have gone to bed (on a non-school night, obviously) and after they've been sleeping for at least an hour, set off the smoke alarms in your house. You want to make sure of two things:

1. Your children are awoken by the fire alarm.
2. They realize what to do and can overcome a groggy state of mind to react quickly and appropriately.

Now I realize that the thought of intentionally waking your children in the middle of the night may sound about as appealing as a double root canal. It may seem like a hassle, and we won't lie: it may indeed be one. But it's a necessary hassle. It will give you vital information about how safe your family really is, and you should only have to do it once. (Though additional practice won't hurt for those so inclined.) If all goes well, hopefully your children are awoken by the alarm and spring into action without hesitation. You'll learn your family is safe and your children the embodiment of safety excellence. If you're like most families, however, you might find that your children's safety net in this regard is a little lacking.

If your children woke up and knew exactly what to do and how to respond, then congratulations: your family is protected and you shouldn't have to do a thing. Yet if things didn't go quite as planned, take heart. Most who try this usually discover some fairly decent flaws that would jeopardize their child's safety in a real-life situation. This is good: It means an opportunity to fix those problems and provide a new level of safety and comfort that you didn't have before. That's the whole point in performing these drills.

If your child failed to wake up at the sound of the alarm...

1. Upgrade the alarm system in your house to a louder model, and place a detector directly outside the child's door if there isn't one already..

2. There are numerous types of fire alarms on the market. One particular type is a voice activated model. Parents record a short message ("Jamie! Get up! There's a fire in the house! Get out right away!") so when the alarm sounds, it plays this message over and over again either by itself or in combination with a standard alarm. Studies have found that children are more likely to wake up to a parent's urgent voice than they are to an alarm. Just like parents tend to get sensitized towards their child's cries, children build sensitivity towards their parents' voice. Such alarms tend to do a much better job of awakening children, and they have the added benefit of providing a groggy child with information about what the alarm means and how to act.

3. Whether you choose to go with additional smoke detectors or a different type, or perhaps both, we have some bad news: you have to do it again. Run another test while they are sleeping, and continue until you find an arrangement that wakes your child.

If your child was groggy, confused, or didn't know how to act...

1. Most often, indecisiveness comes from inexperience and the novelty of this new situation. So if you go over what to do a few times and talk about the experience as much as possible, they should perform much better the second time around.

2. Make sure your child can identify the unique sound of your smoke alarm. It's not enough for children to be awoken by an annoying sound, they need to know what that annoying sound means. This is why parents should regularly set off the alarm so that children become familiar with what it sounds like. This way they can quickly identify it and act appropriately.

3. Make sure to do regular daytime fire drills, so that children know exactly what to do. Repetition builds competency.

In general...

1. Have children sleep with the door cracked, preferably not wide open, as doors are a natural fire barrier and can prevent their room from filling with smoke. Many fire safety experts will tell you to keep them closed, period. But other safety issues (abduction, general welfare) provide better protection when children aren't noise-proofed from their parents. A good compromise is to crack it slightly. It makes the room less soundproof but still serves as a natural smoke barrier.

2. Work into your family's fire escape plan a way for an adult to exit through a route that allows them to check on the child on their way out. Every child's bedroom should have a window to escape through if they become trapped, and adults can simply make this the primary escape route if it's on the first floor. If the children sleep in different rooms, assign a different adult to check on each child. Also always make sure your child has some sort of direct escape route from their room, which might mean purchasing a portable safety ladder for the window if they sleep on the second floor. Post a sticker on the window to alert firefighters of a child's room. Most important of all, practice. Children 4 and up should receive practice about how to get themselves to safety, because you may not be able to reach them in an actual fire

3. Read your children some of our fire safety books. These go over the basics of house fires and escape routes.

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