The acrid smell of smoke in the hospital room was overwhelming. The child in the bed with white sheets pulled up to her chin, oxygen mask on her face, and IV tubes running to her arms looked like she was sleeping. She wasn’t. She was dying.
Pulled out of her burning home, 9 year old Alice had suffered severe smoke inhalation and major burns on the lower half of her body. The doctors had quietly told her parents there was little they could do beyond managing the pain. Her stepmother and dad held hands in stunned silence. Alice’s mom was on her way back from a business trip. My heart broke for her as I thought about what the flight home was doing to her. We kept vigil and waited.
Later that night I went home and hugged my own children too hard. Shaken and sad, I considered how easy it is to become complacent. Caught up in our day-to-day busy lives, how many of us really take the time regularly to educate our children about what to do in case of fire? With approximately 400,000 home fires occurring in the U.S. each year, it’s not something to be complacent about.
October 7-13 is Fire Prevention Week. We can honor the memory of Alice and other children lost to fire by putting our good intentions into action and making our homes and children more fire-safe.
Why are kids so often the causes, and the victims, of fire?
Kids, being kids, often try to copy what they’ve seen teens or adults doing: using matches or lighters, cooking, using appliances, or making a campfire. Often they don’t notice fire hazards or react properly when a fire does get started. A kindergartner who tried to make a piece of toast didn’t notice that a roll of paper towels had been left on top of the toaster oven. An 8-year-old child who simply wanted to cook a hot dog outside caused a fire in the woods behind his house. Another young kid found a lighter left in the family room, panicked when he succeeded in lighting it, and dropped it on a box of tissues that ignited. These kids weren’t malicious or stupid. They were simply young, curious, and unaware they were doing something dangerous. Fortunately, in each of these cases, an adult happened along just in time.
When a fire does happen, children often don’t know what to do. When I canvassed a group of elementary kids recently about what they would do if they were home alone and the house filled with lots of black smoke, their answers were alarming. One said she would go find her dog and then leave the house. Another said that she would open all the windows so the smoke could get out. Still another said she would get the hose from the garden and spray the fire. Several had the right idea, saying they would call 911, but they all thought they should use their home phones. In all these cases, the kids’ good intentions could result in spreading the fire or putting themselves in danger.
Fires don’t wait for us to be present and available. Children left alone, even for a few minutes now and then, still need to know how to be fire-safe. Even children who are well supervised most of the time can be vulnerable. Think about the times you’ve just run out to the corner store for a few minutes to pick up milk or times you’ve been delayed by a traffic snarl and your child was dropped off a few minutes before you got there. Think about the hundreds of times a week when you might be home but you are in a different part of the house or out in the yard and your child is out of sight. Would your child know what to do if they caused or discovered a fire?