High Rise Fire, Smoke and Flames

National Home Fire Safety Week
November 24 - 30, 2007

This archived article is from November 2007. Although every effort has been made to make sure the information presented is accurate, please note that it may contain information that is out-of-date.

One of the first questions that apartment and high-rise dwellers need to answer in the event of a fire is “Should I stay or should I go?” Since no two fires are alike, ultimately each person has to make their own decision in the event of fire emergency. In a multi-floor building, there are some instances in which staying where you are is a better choice than trying to exit the building. Either way, you must take the time to prepare in order to prevent panic, hesitation and confusion which can hinder your safety. Know your emergency exits, have a working smoke alarm and have a plan.

When should you consider STAYING PUT and using the protect-in-place methods?

It is safer to stay put if:

  • The building has working sprinklers and the fire is located in a different part of the building (therefore you are not in immediate danger.)
  • You have smoke or fire outside your exit door.
  • You have a disability which makes evacuation difficult. Make sure that your superintendent is aware of your need for assistance.
  • You waited too long to evacuate and the fire department has already arrived and they have started opening doors to ventilate the fire.

How do you stay put and protect-in-place?

Firstly, know where the most secure area in your apartment is. This is a place that is completely enclosed with a solid door and preferably with a window and phone. Call 911; don’t assume the Firefighters have already been alerted. Now, protect yourself.

  1. Close all doors between you and the fire but do not lock them (Firefighters may need access).
  2. Seal all door cracks and ventilation ducts with wet towels to keep smoke out. (Duct tape works well too.)
  3. Keep low to the floor, where the air is cleaner and less likely to be smoke-filled.
  4. Turn exhaust fans on, to ventilate smoke. Shut off exterior fans and air conditioners as they could draw smoke in from outside the burning building.
  5. Listen for instructions from the building’s public address system.
  6. Open the window for air but do not break it (if you must, do so with caution). You may need to close the window if smoke starts to come in.

Protect-In-Place KIT

  • Flashlight in case the power fails.
  • Duct tape and towels for sealing cracks to prevent smoke from entering.
  • Cell phone to alert others of your whereabouts.
  • Emergency handbook of the building.

Other Tips:

  • Stay low to the floor as smoke usually rises.
  • Wait to be rescued. Do not jump as your chances of survival above the 3rd floor are slim.
  • Do NOT wet cloths to filter smoke for breathing. Although it does reduce smoke inhalation, wet fabric conducts heat to the skin and increases the likeliness of burns.
  • Firefighters cannot rescue you above the 7th floor from your window or balcony. Firefighters fight the fire and rescue from inside.
  • Do not panic. Understand what is going on and what to do. Take control.

When should you consider EVACUATION?

The fire alarm is ringing, you may see or smell smoke, dial 911 and then decide whether to stay put and “protect in place” or evacuate. Remember that it is the by-products of fire, smoke and panic that are the most dangerous. Feel your door and the handle, if it is hot do not open it. Stay put and protect-in-place.

If you decide to evacuate you must act immediately. Do not change clothes or go looking for things to bring. The only items worth having on hand are a flashlight, a cell phone and seasonal clothes (boots and coat if need be). Have these items always ready at your door.

How do you evacuate safely:

  1. As you leave, it is vital to close the door behind you but do not lock it as you may have to return if evacuation is not possible. (Bring your keys if the door locks automatically.)
  2. Calmly make your way to the exit door of the stairs. Stay low against the wall on the side where the exit is. It may be smoky and this will keep you from passing the exit door or getting disorientated.
  3. When you reach the exit and begin to descend, walk down holding the handrail, still staying low to the ground where the air is cleaner. People running by you in a panic may knock you over.
  4. Exit the building and cross the street to a safe place.

Other tips:

  • Never use the elevators. You may become trapped.
  • Smoke can get into stairwells and “stacking” can occur whereby the smoke doesn’t rise very high and it settles. Do not try to go through thick smoke; you will not make it. Turn around and walk back up and remember to hang on tightly to the handrail as you go in the opposite direction of people still coming down. Find an alternate staircase if possible, and return to your room if there are none available.
  • Do not expect to be saved from the roof. The door may be locked for security purposes and rescues by helicopter are not possible on burning buildings. Additionally, since smoke rises, the roof is not a safe place for evacuation.
  • Jumping as a last resort should only be considered if you are jumping from no more than a 3rd floor height. Think clearly and stay calm.

Ultimately it is up to the person to decide the best plan of action: evacuate or stay put. Consider the factors involved and make an informed decision.

Note: These safety tips are based on Canadian building standards. When travelling abroad, conditions may require evacuation at all times.

Last updated June 2017