What’s Your (Fire) Exit Strategy?

Fireman Oscar 2005

As a middle-aged mom, I worry a lot. I worry about everything from boredom to Zika, with meningitis and kidnapping in between. It is often suggested that medication could help…but I worry about the side effects.

Meanwhile, one convenient side effect of enrolling in full-time construction school is that I now have the wherewithal to address some of my worries.

Take fire safety, for example. I’ve been to known to lie awake at night, mentally dotting lines of my family’s escape paths from the second floor. When I inevitably reached the terrifying hypothetical—“What if the stairway is blocked?”—I’d be bolt-upright in bed, handicapping my toddlers’ odds of unlocking bedroom windows and maneuvering the extinguishers and emergency ladders we bought for each of their bedrooms.

I know, I know…medication would help.

My kids aren’t toddlers any more, and they can unlock windows. (That’s why I’m always yelling, “Boys, stop opening the windows! It’s dangerous!”) Still, those emergency fire ladders that hook over window sills are awkward. I still worry about them. Surely there’s a simpler technology?

In the sugar maple in our front yard, we used to have a knotted rope that our kids could scale like Ninja Warriors. I was always yelling, “Boys, stop climbing that rope! It’s dangerous!” But was it any more dangerous than that Rubik’s puzzle of a collapsible fire-escape ladder that I’ve pinned my family’s hopes for survival on? Lately, I’ve been thinking what if the kids had knotted ropes, attached to heavy-duty eyebolts on the interior walls of their bedrooms? They could simply toss the rope out the window and rappel down in the event of fire. After all, it’s not their monkey-like upper-body strength I worry about. It’s that ungainly ladder in a  mangled box beneath the Nerf arsenal that keeps me up at night.

Obviously, the eyebolt would need to be very secure. If only I knew someone who could install an eyebolt in a wall stud…Oh, wait, I do!

In fact, we’ve been doing similar projects at construction school, cutting holes in drywall, installing blocking to support brackets for countertops that weigh infinitely more than my kids. I could do the same to install an eyebolt, to which I could tie a knotted rope. In event of emergency, a child could easily fling the rope out the window and shimmy down without having to locate, unbox and deploy a ladder.

I recently wandered over to the neighborhood firehall and laid out this idea to a fireman. From his facial expression, I’m guessing he doesn’t get a lot of walk-ins like me.

I explained the situation: three kids, upstairs windows, maternal anxiety. Then I launched into the awkwardness of the ladders and my preference for a knotted rope permanently affixed to an interior wall. He took it all in, looked for his own escape route, then, seeing none, responded.

He started with an obvious critique: Ropes can be dangerous in and of themselves. Point taken. I will worry about that. Furthermore, if my kids were so nimble on the knotted rope in the sugar maple, why not put a fire ladder in that tree till they get equally adept with it? Commonsense. I like it. (Unfortunately, the tree was just removed, but that’s another story.)

But then he got interested in my rope plan. He showed me a couple pieces of equipment from the firetruck. One was a skinny rope with a hook that would go over a window sill, a professional version of my over-the-sill ladder. His rope attached to a harness and had a handbrake to control the speed of descent. We agreed that harnesses and handbrakes were overly ambitious for my situation.

The second item reminded me of a rope-in-a-bag that you might throw to someone who has fallen out of a boat. Yes! That’s what I want! Now I just need to attach it to the wall inside the house so a kid can easily throw it out the window in the event of emergency.

Back to my simple eyebolt proposal. He agreed it could work to attach the eyebolt to a stud or a floor joist. In fact, he suggested installing the eyebolt above the window, so you’d be holding onto the rope as you backed out the window. Genius. I had not thought of that. Of course, that makes it more challenging to conceal the rope assembly, which I had envisioned shoving behind a low piece of furniture, but I’m flexible.

“I like where your head is,” the fireman said, or something like that. “Most people think it’s never going to happen to them.”

I have too many friends who have lost their homes and narrowly escaped with their lives to think fire is an impossibility.

Then, as if to talk me off the ledge, he suggested that even more important than my worst-case-scenario evacuation planning was simple prevention and practice. He asked if my family had a meeting place. Yes, the mailbox. Smoke alarms? Yes, eight.

He suggested we check the smoke alarm batteries, test that the devices still work, limit our use of candles, check our heaters, don’t let kids play with matches.

“What about electrical sockets?” I asked, thinking ahead to the upcoming electricity unit in construction school.

Check that your sockets aren’t overloaded, he advised. Then he laughed and said something like, “I’m really giving your husband quite a to-do list.”

Now it was my turn to laugh.

But seriously, I’d love to know if anyone has figured out a second-story fire escape plan for kids that lets you sleep at night. Has anyone installed a simple rope like I’m thinking about? Or a built-in version of the emergency ladder? If you have ideas, insights or words of warning, please post them in the comments. Thank you. And be safe.

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12 thoughts on “What’s Your (Fire) Exit Strategy?

  1. Loved this! My plan was for my daughter to go out the window onto the roof then jump off over low end of front porch. My son had to jump straight onto deck. I now know why I never bought the ladders. My children would never have used them. They both have their own homes now so I worry about myself. My husband is on his own!

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  2. The only thing I have to offer is a “been there, done that.” When we moved into the house we live in now, I was in freak out mode for the first year. Though a small house, it has stairs! Kid’s bedrooms up, mama and daddy down. The horror! I’ll never forget explaining the ‘fire escape plan’ to my 1st and 2nd graders. “Meet by the mailbox!” “Check on your sister, but if the door handle is hot make an escape!” “When you jump be sure to land on the grass not the patio!” – crazy as hell

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  3. I love you. Just wanted to say that. We meet at the V tree. Don’t ask. And our windows don’t open with normal human strength, so I was just obsessing this week about how I would gather us all in the bathroom where we can open a window and all jump out that one. Lots of problems with that plan. And, I had made a mental note to check the fire extinguisher in my master closet. And I had seriously pondered how bad it would really be, without other options, to run through fire. This all came bc I was trying to do oatmeal overnight in the crockpot. I love us.

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  4. Carrington, would you like to be our guest speaker on fire safety next year? This gives you a heads up for October 2017. It seems that the kids have always been excited about fire safety, but the parents….not so much. Thanks for the thoughtful consideration.

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  5. When I was growing up, neighbors had a knotted rope attached to the radiator. OF course, you need a house with good old cast iron radiators. The rope went through a Drano can with a hole drilled on the bottom. (I spent a lot of time there…) and the can was filled with small rocks so it had the weight to help it hit the ground. I asked my parents if we needed something like that and my mother thought it would only encourage us to climb out windows. I’m sure she was right on that account.

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