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‘Stay low and go’: Harrisburg fire chief offers advice for surviving a potentially lethal fire

Harrisburg Fire Chief Brian Enterline wants you to know a few things to survive a fire: Stay low to the ground to avoid smoke and make sure your home has a working smoke detector, and a better sprinkler system.

In the wake of two of the country’s deadliest fires in recent memory, Interline said the onus is also on the public to educate them about fire safety, and to make the necessary changes to prevent fires.

“This is the greatest thing one can give to those who have lost their lives,” Interline said Monday, as New York officials investigated a fire in a 19-story building in the Bronx, reviewing the toll of lives lost. At least 17 people – nine adults and eight children – were killed on Sunday. More than 60 people were injured.

Last Wednesday, 12 people, including eight children, were killed in a Philadelphia apartment fire early in the morning. Authorities say the three-story rowing house in Fairmount was equipped with four battery-operated smoke alarms but none of them worked.

In both fires, fire officials quickly pointed to the deadly role smoke plays in the fires.

As facts about the Bronx fire begin to emerge, officials are investigating maintenance issues that may have prevented the apartment door from closing automatically, potentially allowing smoke to spread throughout the 120-unit building.

Interline said smoke is usually the killer in these fires — not so much the flames.

“When we look at fires, especially when there is a huge loss of life, we see that these people were not burned to death. They died from smoke inhalation.

The materials in our homes – textiles, furniture, imitation wood floors, for example, contribute to deadly smoky conditions.

“Think not only of sofas and armchairs, but of all the polycarbonate, faux wood furniture, particleboard, and gum-based stuff,” Interline said. “All of this contributes to this toxic load of smoke being spread throughout the building.”

For this reason, fire safety experts recommend that people sleep with their bedroom doors closed. Anything that can delay smoke saturation and even deprive a fire of oxygen increases the chances of people getting out alive.

Authorities in New York have focused on a faulty electric heater as the cause of the fire. Soon, smoke, undisturbed by the open door, which was required, by the city’s housing code, for self-closing, spread throughout the building.

Most fire injuries are caused by smoke inhalation – not thermal injuries. Fire safety experts like Fire Chief Brian Enterline suggest people in the event of a fire stay low to the ground to avoid the layer of smoke and crawl on their stomachs to safety. If the corridor is blocked, they should close the room door and close the floor gap with blankets or towels, then open the windows and wait for rescue. Authorities in New York state that a faulty space heater is the cause of the Bronx fire, pictured here. (AP Photo/ Yuki Iwamura)AP

Enterline, which teaches fire safety at Harrisburg Area Community College, said modern materials tend to burn faster and hotter and produce more deadly by-products than traditional materials used previously.

“It’s the effluents from that fire, gases, smoke and soot. All of these things are ultimately what leads to death,” Interline said. “Few people burn to death.”

In fact, York County’s Coroner Pam Guy said fire victims rarely died from fires or thermal injuries. Almost all deaths are attributed to smoke inhalation.

“Smoke causes carbon monoxide levels to rise to a toxic level in the bloodstream,” Jay said. “It can clog the airways with the byproducts of fire. Soot and that kind of thing. Not only is carbon monoxide high in the bloodstream, it is a byproduct that can cause spasms in the airways and basically suffocate a person” .

It only takes about four to six minutes of a person not being able to breathe properly — whether through obstruction or inhaling smoke — to get into a hazardous area, Jay said.

“Four to six minutes without oxygen can cause irreversible brain damage,” she said.

Inline said most tall buildings in Harrisburg have been modernized with sprinkler systems.

This is why no fires have been reported in the city’s tallest buildings, he said. It happens and the department responds to it, but smoke rarely becomes a fatal factor.

“There was a fire in one of the tallest towers,” said Inline. “Not reported. The sprinklers were scattered and there was no smoke in the corridors. If this building had not had a sprinkler system, without a doubt in my mind, this smoke would have taken many lives because it was one of the very old people.”

The sprinkler system law is a municipal law, and in fact, these ordinances differ from one municipality to another.

The city sprinkler law, enacted in 1986, requires retroactive sprinkler systems to be installed in all buildings 75 feet or more in height.

“Our residents can sleep a lot easier than residents of big cities, and you don’t have to go very far to see undisturbed high altitudes,” Interline said.

Municipalities such as Wilkes Barry and Pittsburgh, both sites of recent fatal fires, have no such ordinance, and are looking to models for possible ordinances after Harrisburg.

Enterline is adamant that homeowners should consider retrofitting their homes with sprinkler systems. He notes that homeowners don’t refuse to renovate expensive kitchens or bathrooms, but they won’t invest in a life-saving sprinkler system.

“One hundred percent that would save lives,” he said. “There is no doubt in my mind that we will save countless lives.”

When it comes to the next critical component of a home fire safety system, smoke detectors are key—but only if they are fully functional and functional.

These days, homeowners can install smoke detectors connected to the home’s electrical system (with a battery backup). In addition, the older generation of 9-volt battery-powered smoke detectors gave way to 10-year lithium-ion battery-powered devices, recommended by Interline over the older generation.

“What we find in the public is that the less they relate to smoke alarms, the better,” he said. “If you have to replace that battery twice a year or if you don’t have a muffler when you burn food, that leads to disaster at the end of the day.”

The fire that killed 12 people in a Philadelphia row house has led to a 10-year inspection of lithium battery smoke detectors.

Authorities are investigating why four smoke detectors failed. The reagents passed the inspection about eight months ago, but did not explode in the fire.

Authorities said the four smoke detectors were installed in 2019 and two replaced in 2020.

“It will be interesting to see what happened,” Interline said. “Have they been tampered with? Have they been ripped off their base?”

It will likely take a year to produce a full report, he said. Meanwhile, Enterline reports that its division has installed thousands of lithium battery smoke detectors for 10 years and no problems have been reported.

Battery smoke detectors with a long life span can allow homeowners to install them, for example, in kitchens where smoke may routinely turn them off. It gives homeowners the opportunity to deal with smoky kitchen conditions without necessarily disrupting the entire building system. Enterline says it’s a good solution for situations where buildings may have frequent false alarms or annoying alarms, as is often the case with cooking.

Almost all municipal fire departments provide free assistance or equipment and batteries to residents, often regardless of the resident’s economic status.

Harrisburg, for example, will provide any resident with a smoke alarm, carbon monoxide detector, and even batteries free of charge upon request.

“All it takes is a phone call to us,” Interline said. “Just because you can’t afford it is no excuse for not having. Contact your local fire department.”

When it comes to fires, the majority of deaths occur in the bedroom. Nationwide, the number one cause of fires is cooking, but the number one cause of fire death is smoking-related fires caused by people smoking in a bed or chair.

“The majority of these cases do not have smoke detectors,” Interline said.

One factor often heard in home fires is space heaters, and in fact, authorities are investigating the role a space heater played in the Bronx fire.

Enterline admits that fire protection experts may caution against using space heaters, but it doesn’t go that far.

“I’m a real person,” he said. “I’m on the streets. I know what our families are going through. My philosophy about space heaters is to plug them straight into the wall. Not ifs, but or and. They should plug directly into the wall.”

He said power strips are generally not designed for the energy load that space heaters require.

As he said, the area around 3-foot heaters should be clear of any furniture or other combustible materials regardless of whether the heaters are running.

“If it plugs directly into a wall and is 3 feet away from it, there is little chance of anything happening,” Interline said.

Remember the “stop, drop, and roll” drills that schoolchildren learned years ago in fire safety classes? These have largely gone by the wayside due to the prevalence of fire retardant clothing.

But there are basic skills that increase your chances of surviving a fire: First of all, call 911. Next, if you’re in a smoky room or in a smoky building: stay low and go.

You may have to crawl on your stomach (if you are able).

“If you can see your way, stay under the smoke,” said Inline. “This is where the oxygen is. Our usual human instinct is to walk. That’s just what we do. Stand. But that puts you right in the smoke layer where the sewage is. This is where all the toxic gases and fumes are. It’s really a combination of Death. You want to stay under the layer of smoke and crawl out.”

If you can’t crawl outside, close any doors and fill the floor gap with blankets to prevent smoke from escaping. Enterline said open any windows by any means necessary.

“It will give you the ability to hang your head out of the window until you are rescued,” he said.

Pennsylvania has historically been and remains among the states with the highest per capita fire mortality rates.

“This says something about our response to fire safety,” he said.

Just last Saturday, a fire broke out at a $2 million mansion in Adams County, burning it completely.

Nobody was home at the time of the fire, but the 9,900-square-foot home, which was only a few years old, could have survived. But the firefighters could not save her.

“The only thing that could have saved this home was the sprinkler system,” Wendell Hare, vice president of Heidlersburg Volunteer Fire, told The Evening Sun. “It was such a head start on us.”

Enterline points to decades of commercial lobbying by builders against any legislation mandating sprinkler systems in private homes.

“In Pennsylvania, we have a great aversion to the government telling us what to do,” Interline said. “Builders have been pushing against sprinkler systems for decades. Builders have been fighting hard even though we are killing people in new homes that are burning and collapsing quickly.”

It is estimated that retrofitting a sprinkler system is about $2 per square foot.

“We are willing to pay for upgrades to worktops and kitchen cabinets. We are willing to pay for that but not willing to pay a few thousand extra for a sprinkler system.”

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