I have worked several years in East Africa. Most buildings there have iron bars covering windows to prevent thieves. When I first arrived in Tanzania, I felt like I was in prison when inside buildings. That was intensified when the first night my family was in Dar es Salaam, the lock to our bedroom jammed while we were inside. I had a hacksaw blade in my bags that got us out, but it took 15 – 30 minutes.
When I was working at Kibosho Girls Secondary School in Moshi, Tanzania 1994-95 there was a terrible fire at another school in the area and many (40-200?) girls died, locked in their dormitory. In the excited state this news caused, one night at our school a rumor got going that lead to some people being slightly injured in a panic to go out of their dorms.
I prepared the presentation below. We also followed up with role playing, particularly about the situation where a crowd tries to leave a building through an inward swinging door.
What can we learn from Sunday night?
”We have nothing to fear but fear itself” Winston Churchill
Panic = extreme fear that prevents proper thinking
Though there was no fire, hundreds of pupils rushed out in the darkness and risked hurting themselves.
Many people in panic is very dangerous, even if there is no other danger. Many people have died or been hurt unnecessarily because of panic. They have been trampled under people’s feet or crushed against walls, fences or other hard things. Try to avoid being in or forming a tightly packed crowd. This usually only makes things more difficult and dangerous. If you do get caught in a crowd, try to keep some space in front of you by holding your arms out some in front of your stomach. You may be able to protect a child in this space also. Try to lift both feet often to prevent people standing on them and trampling you down. Try to be like a ball floating on stormy water. Try to calm people down, make them quiet, give them hope, give them something to laugh about. If the mass of people starts moving, try to avoid coming next to a wall or other non-movable object.
If it is dark also the danger increases. What can I do in the dark? If you don’t know for sure there is an acute danger, it could be safest to just stay where you are. If you don’t stay where you are, but you have a torch (or anything that produces light, such as clock with light on dial), it can help you find your way. Use it sparingly (as little as possible) so you know there will be some left when you need it. If you have no light, feel your way, following the wall or things along the wall. If there could be bare electric wires, feel with the back of your hand or a knuckle of your fist (closed hand). (An open hand can grip an electric wire with an involuntary cramp so you can’t let go). Move calmly with small steps. Hurrying is dangerous!
If you are quiet, your hearing can help you ”see” because of the sound which bounces back from things. If the people make a lot of noise, it can increase the fear and prevent people from getting necessary information.
For example if everyone tries to get out of the dormitory at once and they are all pushing toward the door. If the door opens inward (as they do at present), no one will be able to open the door. If there is a lot of noise, the people at the back will not hear people in front tell them to back up.
Should a fire happen what should you do? The best thing is to put it out quickly it you can do that without danger. A fire needs 3 things: fuel, oxygen and heat. If you take away any one of these three there will be no fire.
How can I take away the fuel? If there is a leak of gas or kerosene, maybe I can turn it off. If a chair or dust bin is burning, maybe I can throw it outside of the building. If I can’t get it out (for example a bed), maybe I can move other burnable things farther away.
How can I keep oxygen away from the fire? Put water, sand, a heavy cloth over it. A cloth must be applied quickly, other wise it will just be more fuel. Use a fire extinguisher which sprays carbon dioxide, foam, other chemicals over the fire. Remember that you must hit the base of the fire, not the upper flames. Shut doors and windows. Water should NOT be used in these cases:
- A fire in oil should not be hit with water. It can be like an explosion as the water becomes steam in the hot oil. Cover it! If it is in a pot, put on the lid or a metal plate.
- If there is electricity, the electricity can follow the water back to the person throwing the water.
If a persons clothing is burning, it will burn most and spread fastest if he is standing up and the flames go around the face. If your clothing starts burning, roll around on the ground, if you don’t have water. Roll up in a blanket or other heavy cloth, with your head out. If another person’s clothes burn, help them in the same way.
One way of taking heat away from a fire is to beat it with a coat, branch, rug.
If you are in a building and there is (maybe) a fire going on, don’t open doors quickly. See first if the handle is hot. If the door opens toward you, put your foot against it as you open it a little bit. Don’t have your face near the opening, as flames might shoot out through the opening.
If you are in or must go through a room with smoke in it, keep your face close to the floor! Smokey air is very dangerous. Hot gases with smoke go up, so the cleanest air is near the floor. Besides being safer to breathe, you can see better. 3 inches from the floor you can sometimes see 10 meters across the room, while 1 foot up, you can’t see your finger 4 inches away.
Whenever you get to a new place, it is good to look around. Find what different ways you can get out, where things to put out fires are, where lifebelts are on a boat, so you don’t waste time in an emergency. Tell the people in charge if something is missing, faulty or seems dangerous.
Look around your dormitory to see where there are electric outlets, lamps and other wiring. Especially, find where you can turn off the electricity. This can be good to know if the electricity itself is making a fire or giving a person a chock. It can also be good if you are going to put out a fire with water and don’t want to risk getting electrocuted (killed by electricity). Notice which ways doors open! Doors should go outwards in public buildings, but they don’t always. Do extra emergency doors work? Where are the keys?
If I must jump down, where would be a good spot? What should I avoid? What could I do to make it safer? Throw down mattresses to jump onto, tie together sheets to make a rope. Hang as low as possible before letting go. Have knees slightly bent as I land. REMEMBER Jumping is dangerous! Don’t jump until absolutely necessary.
If I have to leave the dormitory, where should we assemble? If this is not decided and followed it will be difficult to know if someone is inside or has just gone somewhere else. This can endanger other people that try to ”save” the missing person who is no longer inside.
I think the contents are OK, The only addition I’d like to make when I look at it now (2009) is about a detail in smothering a fire in a person’s clothing. At my job in Sweden, CFL 2008, we had some exercises about this. It is important that a person doesn’t have fire around their head. Inhaling flames and smoke can do big damage. It is important for the person to lie down on the ground. If someone tries to smother a fire in someones clothes by putting on a blanket, rug or coat it can feel more natural to start from the feet and cover upwards, but this drives the flames up towards the head! So don’t do that! Start from just below the head and cover down towards the feet. This drives the flames away from the head.
Though I am interested and have tried to collect what I think is good advice, I am not an officially certified rescue trainer. Because this page is about life and death questions, I really hope you will point out anything that might be wrong or that should be added.
I have now been a member in training at Svenska Sjöräddningssälskapet, SSRS, (Swedish sea rescue organisation) 2018+2019. It is quite interesting. It includes some fire fighting, as well as first aid, boat handling, search and rescue at sea.