Dad taught us fire drill: The best homework children can be given in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy

Sarah-Marie Flint was brought up in a fire-conscious household by a father who was in the industry – and has passed on the lessons to her own family (and frankly, to anyone who will listen)

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The Independent Online

This was the first father’s day I have had without my father. Cancer, Addison’s disease and pulmonary embolisms took him from us. But a few years ago, fire nearly did. Not a house fire, a car crash. A drunk driver travelling on the wrong side of the road hit my father head on and shunted his car back 30 feet and spun it round 180 degrees.

My father managed to escape the car just before it burst into flames and then blew up. The fire brigade said he was lucky he was in a Ford Mondeo as the frame was strong enough to withstand such an impact; that he was able to open the door and get out. Otherwise he would have perished in the fire.

The dreadful irony of that incident is that for part of his career he worked in the fire prevention industry. He was a manufacturing director of a company that made smoke detectors. He worked closely with the fire brigade. He had seen some fairly shocking videos and, perhaps unusually for a father, used to attend Disaster Conferences.

As a consequence, as children, we used to have fire drills at home. My father would call us to a random room. Sometimes we would run in from the garden where we were playing or building a tent over the climbing frame or my brother was throwing Action Man into the fish pond, pretending he was a small plastic James Bond. Whatever we were doing we would go immediately to '‘fire drill'’ and stand in front of my father.

“Ok,” he would say and point in one direction or another, “the fire is OUT THERE, how would you get out of here? What would you do?”

If we did know, we’d regale him with what he’d taught us before, “Open the window and climb out!”

“But, what if the window is stuck?”

“Break the window?”

“What with? What would you use in here to break the window? And once you’ve broken the window how would you make it safe to climb out? What would you put over the broken glass?”

In the sitting room, we would use the cushions off the sofa and armchairs to cover any broken glass. Upstairs, he taught us how to climb out of a bedroom window, after throwing out as many soft things to land on, pillows, duvets, yes ok teddy if you must, mattress, if we could manage and then climb out and lower ourselves down to make the jump to ground the least possible distance.

If we had access to water, to soak towels in it and put them at the bottom of the door to prevent smoke from coming in. We were told to not rush back for our pets, for the hamster. To not risk our lives trying to get the hamster out of the cage and then trying to climb out of the window while holding on to it. (We asked my father many questions of ‘'what if?'’ and ‘'could we?'’ during fire drill)

Whenever we moved house (which was frequently) he would have to adjust the advice accordingly. It made us aware, all the time, of the risk of fire. Shopping trips with my father would generally include him looking up in shops, pleased when he saw his own smoke detectors installed. Any stay in a hotel would always include him checking that we knew exactly our route out and also on the odd occasion, him tut-tutting and closing a fire door, which had been blocked open, maybe by a guest who was bringing their luggage through.

This leads me on to other things which can help fire safety. That is, where people park their cars. Hearing of fire engines being unable to get to a fire is just awful. I have seen a fire crew rock a car over to get through and to a fire, but that’s a lot of energy they’ve used up even before they have reached the fire.

If we can do anything in the wake of such an awful tragedy, at the very least we should become more aware of fire risk in our day-to-day lives. Always closing fire doors, parking sensibly so that emergency vehicles can get past and giving our children the information which would help them if the worst happened.

Of course, I was lucky as a child that I had a father with such knowledge; I don’t expect there are many children whose fathers go off to Disaster Conferences. We were fortunate that we lived in our own home, we didn’t live in a block of flats and so we were in control of how we lived, in control of all the safety aspects in our lives.

To place your trust in others is something we do every day. I sometimes think, when crossing a bridge or walking under scaffolding, I am putting my trust in the people who designed and constructed this or that. I am putting my trust that the built environment around me has complied to the proper regulations. I am putting my trust in all these faceless people that they would have my best interests at heart. But of course, there are people who cut corners or cut costs. Hopefully the outcome of the appalling fire at Grenfell Tower will be the force for huge changes in the quality and safety of social housing.

We have fire drill in school as children, we have fire drill at work and hotels. But how many have fire drill at home? We can empower ourselves and teach our children vital lessons, which will stay with them well into adulthood. My son wanted to be a fire fighter but because of the cuts our local fire station wasn’t recruiting; he became a volunteer there. The volunteers go out and perform home checks and can instal smoke detectors. You can arrange a home fire safety visit. Check out your own fire brigade for further details. They would much prefer to prevent a fire than have to tackle one.

London Fire Brigade has a home risk assessment form (https://hfsvwr.london-fire.gov.uk/HomeRiskAssessment.aspx) and a home fire safety page (london-fire.gov.uk/HomeFireSafetyVisit.asp), but do look up your own local advice too. 

When I was a child and since then, if I ever tell people that we had fire drill at home, eyebrows are often raised, “Really? Fire drill?” “At home?” It seemed an unusual thing to do for some people. Home is familiar. We all know how to get out of home. But you only have to think of driving into a patch of thick fog on a very familiar road and quite quickly losing any idea of where you are.

It is so disorientating. You may have been driving down that same road for 10 years and now, covered in fog, you can’t remember where the next bend in the road is. Add to that, heat, panic and frightened people screaming and the disorientation would only get worse. To have as many tools as possible, as much information as possible, and the knowledge of the drill, the what-to-do-in-the-event-of will help not only you but others around you.

I so wish I had my father back with us, not just for everything else he was as a father but also the knowledge he held about fire safety; the conversations we’d be having now, the knowledge he’d be passing on.

Having spent some quality time with your family this father’s day weekend, do some homework with your children. Do a fire drill at home, whether or not you have a father in your household. It could be the best Fathers’ Day present you give your family.

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