The flames lit up the night sky. Thick, dark smoke poured out of windows and in the end, a charred and brittle structure remained, almost unrecognizable.
The burning of a West London high-rise apartment building left at least 17 people dead earlier this week.
“If the building in London had sprinklers, you and I wouldn’t be talking right now,” says Glenn Corbett, associate professor of fire science at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
In his view, your safety in a high-rise depends, almost entirely, on the high-rise itself. The higher up you are, the longer it’s going to take to get out.
So, in the event of a high-rise apartment fire, what are the best steps to protect yourself?
1. Don’t panic
The first sign of a fire is typically a blaring alarm system. But once you see or smell smoke, you should immediately call 911 and tell the operator where you are in the building. Due to the massive size of a high-rise building, this will help first responders locate you more quickly and will help firefighters determine how much of the building is threatened.
The US also has minimum requirements for building codes as far as ways people can get out in an emergency, including mandating access to at least two staircases.
“Think about how you would get out of the building long before the alarm,” says Atlanta architect Dan Meachum. “You have to have at least two ways out.”
2. Determine where the fire is relative to your apartment
High-rise fires: By the numbers
Average number of people who die each year in such fires
Source: A National Fire Protection Association study between 2009 and 2013
When faced with danger, your first instinct is to flee as quickly as possible. Don’t.
“Normally, most procedures in … residential high-rise fires have people stay in their apartments, unless the fire is in their apartment, adjacent to their apartment or their apartment is being impacted by the fire,” Corbett says.
Why? Because in most scenarios, especially if residents are on higher floors, it’s too dangerous and difficult for them to leave.
“It’s happened time and time again: people left their apartments and tried to make it down the stairs. It’s basically like walking into a chimney,” Corbett says.
“There’s a natural inclination to get out. But you could be put in more danger trying to do that.”
However, if the stairs are a clear and safe option, use them.
Be quick, but in control, experts say.
3. Decide if it’s safer to stay or go
- If you decide to stay:
Unless your apartment is actively threatened by the fire, stay put. Place wet towels under your doors and cover your vents to limit smoke coming in. Then wait for first responders.
- If you decide to leave:
Don’t go up to the roof or use the elevators. Also, don’t break a window and definitely don’t try to jump.
These methods of escape could be dangerous – even deadly.
Corbett says there should be one item that you should prioritize when fleeing: your key.
This is important in case you leave your apartment and quickly find your hallway or stairs blocked. You might have to turn back.
4. Listen to first responders
At the end of the day, Corbett says, listen to firefighters and do as they say.
“The only thing that will probably keep you alive is knowing what to do in a fire.”