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Jan 18, 2016 | 09:15 GMT

8 mins read

What to Do in Case of a Fire

(KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Travelers are far more likely to be affected by fire than by terrorism.
  • Fire kills hundreds of thousands of people every year.
  • There are steps you can take to mitigate the threat posed by fire.

On Jan. 13, seven people were killed when fire tore through a beach resort in Zeralda, Algeria, a town on the outskirts of Algiers. According to media reports, the police believe that the early morning fires were set intentionally. Authorities are now seeking three suspects in connection with the incident, which appears to have been an attack on Algeria's tourist sector.

The incident in Algeria came on the heels of two other higher-profile hotel fires: the New Year's Eve fire at the high-rise Address Hotel in Dubai and the Jan. 6 fire at the Pearl Continental Hotel in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Both blazes are said to have begun accidently. While there were no deaths in either fire, they illustrate that five-star facilities and smaller, less exclusive properties alike are vulnerable to fire.

Taken together, these incidents are a reminder of the danger that fire poses for those traveling abroad, whether a blaze is set intentionally or ignites accidentally. Because fires kill hundreds of thousands of people every year — many more than terrorist attacks — you are far more likely to be affected by fire than by a terrorist attack while traveling. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to mitigate the threat posed by fire.

Being Prepared

Fires are deadly enough in the United States and Europe, where there are strict fire codes. But they are even more lethal in less-developed countries, where fire codes are often nonexistent or poorly enforced. For example, though sprinkler systems are mandatory for hotels in the United States, this is not the case in many parts of the world. Even in hotels that have sprinkler systems, it is common to find that they have not been properly maintained and are not functional.

The same can be said for fire alarms. There are reports that the fire alarm and suppression systems did not function properly in the Rawalpindi fire, which started in a basement records room and then spread upward. Negligence is also an issue: Hotel staff in Rawalpindi reportedly told concerned guests who smelled smoke that there was nothing to worry about and to go back to bed.

In hotels in the developing world, it is not uncommon for items to be stored in emergency stairwells, leaving stairs obstructed and sometimes impassable. It is also not unusual for employees to chain fire doors shut because of criminal or terrorist threats. Therefore, one way to diminish the threat from fire is to check that emergency exits are clear and unlocked. Doing so is important not just in hotels but also in apartment and office buildings and can help avert catastrophe. In the August 2011 Casino Royale fire in Monterrey, Mexico, cartel gunmen ordered guests out of the building before dousing it with gasoline and lighting it on fire. Unfortunately, 52 people died because they were trapped inside by a fire exit that had been chained shut. 

While staying in hotels overseas, travelers should try to stay between the third and sixth floors. Doing so is advisable for security reasons, and it also puts guests within range of most fire department rescue ladders. Travelers should always check that there are functional and tested fire extinguishers and hoses at their hotel. Asking about sprinkler and fire alarm systems while making reservations is helpful, but sometimes reservation clerks will be uninformed or deliberately misleading. Therefore, it is prudent to check with in-country contacts who might know about a hotel's fire protection systems.

Smoke inhalation is the primary cause of fire deaths and accounts for 50-80 percent of all deaths from indoor fires. Though this is somewhat obvious in confined spaces such as an aircraft fuselage or a subway tunnel, it is also true for buildings. Even concrete or cinderblock structures that would seem fire resistant can confine smoke to deadly levels, which was the case with the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi. Video after the attack showed that the fire had not badly damaged the building's structure — smoke is what killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and communications officer Sean Smith.

As Stratfor has noted through the years, smoke hoods should be part of everyone's personal safety plan.

As Stratfor has noted through the years, smoke hoods should be part of everyone's personal safety plan. They are easily carried in a purse or briefcase and can provide the wearer with 15-30 minutes of safe air to breathe, which makes a world of difference to someone attempting to escape a burning building. A small, high-intensity flashlight to help you find your way through the smoke or dark once you have donned your smoke hood is also very useful.

Reacting: What to Do in Case of Disaster

If you wake up to the sound of a smoke alarm or to the smell of smoke in your hotel room, go down to the floor and grab your room key and flashlight from the bedside table (the best place to keep these items). Then, don your smoke hood if you have one. Smoke and toxic gasses tend to rise, so it is best to stay low. At this point, pause for a moment to assess your situation rather than running out into the hallway in panic — you could be running into trouble. Instead, you should prepare yourself to exit carefully.

Before opening the hotel room door, check it with the palm of your hand. If either the door or doorknob is hot, there could be a fire in the hall right outside the room. Even if it is not hot, the door should be opened carefully. Be ready to quickly slam it shut if there is fire in the hall!

If the hallway is clear of fire, begin crawling out of your room. Again, staying low will help protect against smoke and toxic fumes. Close the room door behind you — it will help keep out smoke in case the exit route is obstructed and you have to return to the room. Move down the hallway, staying next to the wall to use it as a guide and as protection against being trampled by panicking people. Follow the hallway to the closest stairway fire exit and use it. Remember, never get in an elevator during a fire. When you reach the exit stairs, walk down to the ground floor. Use the handrail as a guide and safeguard against any rushing people.

If there is smoke in the stairwell, do not try to run through it. Instead, turn around and try to find another emergency exit. If there is also smoke coming up the second emergency staircase, you must choose between returning to your room or climbing the stairs to the roof. If you opt for the roof, remember to prop the door open to allow smoke to leave the stairwell and to make sure you will not be locked out on top of the building. Try to find the part of the roof that is best protected from fire and smoke and sit down.

Now, if all the exits are blocked, or if fire in the hallway prevents you from leaving your room, try to ventilate the room by turning on the bathroom fan and opening a window if possible. Avoid breaking the window unless you have to; shards of glass are dangerous and you may need to close it if smoke begins to pour into the room. Being able to reclose the window is especially important during exterior fires such as the one in Dubai. Then, if the room telephone works, or if you have a cellphone, call the front desk or the fire department to tell them your location. Hanging a bed sheet out your window can also serve as a signal to firefighters.

If the water is still working in your room, fill the bathtub and find an ice bucket or a trash can you can use to bail water onto the door or hot walls. Wet towels will also come in handy. You can use them to keep smoke out of the room by wedging them into the cracks around the door, or as a makeshift smoke hood. Tying a wet towel around your head and over your nose and mouth will help reduce the amount of smoke you breathe in. (Unfortunately, it will not protect against dangerous gases such as carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide.)

Undoubtedly, fire is a serious threat at home or abroad. But steps can be taken to reduce the danger it poses. Being prepared, informed and proactive can go a long way in helping you find your way out of a deadly situation.

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