How To Protect Yourself from Fire While Traveling
By TorchStone VP, Scott Stewart
Fire is a killer.
To be more specific, inhaling smoke created by fires causes most fire-related deaths.
Globally, far more people die in fires than are killed in criminal or terrorist attacks.
We have also seen terrorists and criminals use fire as a weapon to deadly effect.
The 2008 Mumbai and 2012 Benghazi attacks come readily to mind in terms of the terrorist use of fire, and the 2011 arson attack against the Casino Royale in Monterrey Mexico by Los Zetas that killed 53 is a criminal act that is heavily etched into memory.
Whether the result of an accidental or natural wildfire, or an intentional manmade disaster, fire is deadly. Performing a hotel safety check, having some easy-to-carry items, and knowing what to do in case of a fire will give you the best preparation to survive.
As the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in London illustrated, fires can cause mass casualty events and wreak havoc in places such as Europe and the United States where there are strict fire codes.
It should come as no surprise then, that fires prove to be even more lethal in underdeveloped countries where fire codes can be either nonexistent or poorly enforced.
While sprinkler and fire alarm systems are mandatory for hotels in many countries, they simply are not required in some parts of the world.
In some countries that do mandate sprinklers and fire alarms, fire codes are not always strictly enforced, and some hotels thus do not have the required equipment.
Even in hotels that have sprinkler systems and alarms installed, it is not uncommon to find that they are either in poor repair are non-functional.
Asking about sprinkler and fire alarm systems before making reservations is helpful, but sometimes reservation clerks will be uninformed or deliberately misleading.
Therefore, when possible, it is prudent to check with trusted in-country contacts who might know about a hotel’s fire protection systems.
After checking in, check to ensure there are sprinklers and alarms along with tested and functional fire extinguishers and hoses at the hotel.
It can also be worth the extra caution to carry your own smoke detector.
Even in countries with strict fire codes, hotels can have obstructed or locked fire exits.
Emergency exits can be blocked by furniture and other items stored in emergency stairwells.
It is also not unusual to find that fire doors have been chained shut due to criminal activity or terrorist threats.
I’ve even encountered blocked emergency exits while working executive protection details in luxury hotels in major American and European cities, so this is not an imaginary problem.
Therefore, it is important to check the emergency exits in advance. (You should also regularly check the emergency exits in your office or apartment building—many people have never done so.)
When 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.
However, on your way to check the emergency exits, it is also a good idea to count the number of doors between your hotel room and the emergency exit.
If you are crawling to try to stay under the smoke and unable to see due to smoke or dark, counting the doors will allow you to track your progress toward the exit.
To help with the smoke and the dark, it is advisable to carry a smoke hood and good quality flashlight. Keep them handy next to your bed along with other vital items such as your room key, passport, and wallet.
Reacting to a Fire
If you are awakened by the sound of a smoke alarm or the smell of smoke in your hotel room, roll to the floor and grab your room key, flashlight, and other essentials from the bedside table.
Smoke and toxic gasses tend to rise, so it is best to stay low.
Put your smoke hood on if you have one.
If not, you can place a damp towel or washcloth over your nose and mouth to help cut down on some of the smoke.
At this point, pause for a moment to assess your situation rather than blindly running out into the hall and into potentially more danger.
Instead, you should prepare yourself to exit your room carefully and thoughtfully.
Before opening your hotel room door, carefully check it with the back 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, you should always open your door carefully.
Be prepared to quickly slam it shut if there is fire in the hall.
If the hallway is clear of fire, close the room door behind you to help keep out smoke in case your exit route is blocked, and you must return to the room. (This is why it is important to take your room key with you.)
Begin crawling toward the exit. Staying low will help protect against smoke and toxic gasses.
As you move down the hall toward the exit, stay next to the wall to use it as a guide and as protection against being trampled by panicking people.
Follow the hallway and count doorways to the closest stairway fire exit and use it.
Never get in an elevator during a fire.
When you reach the exit stairs, walk down to the ground floor staying as low as you can.
Use the handrail as a guide and guard yourself against any people running down the stairs.
Roof or Room
If there is smoke in the stairwell, do not try to run down 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 then choose between returning to your room or carefully 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, sit down, and await rescue.
If all the emergency 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 must, because shards of glass are dangerous to you and those below, and you may need to close it if smoke begins to pour into the room from outside.
Being able to reclose the window is especially important during exterior fires such as the Grenfell fire.
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 as you wait for rescue.
Fire is a serious threat, but by being informed and prepared, and taking a few proactive steps, you can significantly mitigate the threat it poses to you.