A blaring alarm wakes you up in the middle of the night. But it’s not your alarm clock. It’s an emergency. A fire is raging in your building.

Help has arrived, but how will they get to you? The ladders on the fire trucks can only reach a maximum height of 33 m (107 ft). And you’re much higher up. Will firefighters be able to get to you in time?

Should you go down? Should you go up? Should you make a rope out of your bedsheets? How will you be able to see, let alone breathe, in all that thick smoke? Are there more practical ways of getting out?


Between 2009 and 2013, there was an average of 14,500 fires every year in high-rise buildings in the U.S. As cities around the world continue to grow denser and taller, figuring out the best ways to save people trapped on the upper floors is a mounting challenge for metro fire departments.

Firefighters usually set up a base about two floors below the fire, and from there, they must climb several stories to reach anyone who’s trapped. The trouble is that firefighters have limited oxygen supplies, which affects how far and how fast they can go.

They also can’t bring much extra equipment with them, in case they need to carry people back down.  That’s not to say that people on higher floors have to fend for themselves. Firefighters will do everything they can to save everyone inside. But if you’re trapped in a burning high-rise with hundreds of residents, you may be waiting for a while until you’re rescued. And what you decide to do during that time can be a matter of life or death.

Step 1: Do Your Research

If you’re in the market for a new home, or if you simply like playing with buttons, a high-rise apartment sounds like the right fit for you. But do your research and make sure you choose a building with an up-to-date fire safety system, like working sprinklers and alarms. Take the time to learn your building’s fire protocol, and where the emergency exits are. When you’re moving into your new apartment, test your unit’s fire alarm, and check it regularly, so you know when it’s time to change the batteries.

Step 2: Stay Calm

An unexpected fire alarm will be jarring and scary, but panicking won’t help. Stay calm, and try to figure out whether the fire is above you, below you, or on your floor. Then feel the door to your unit. If it is cool, you should be able to leave your apartment and head for the nearest exit. If you do leave, be sure to close all the doors behind you, so you don’t give the fire more oxygen to keep burning.

Step 3: Crawl and Cover

Smoke inhalation is the leading cause of death in fires, and it will be practically unavoidable in a burning high-rise. If you have to pass through smoke, make sure you do so by crawling on all fours. But don’t crawl on your belly, since there are heavier toxic gases that can form a thin layer on the floor. Crawl your way through the smoke, and cover your mouth and nose with your shirt to help filter out the smoke as you breathe.

Step 4: Close the door and seal the cracks

If it’s too dangerous to leave your apartment, you’re still going to need to protect yourself against smoke coming in. Get to an area where you can close the door and seal the cracks. You can do this by wetting towels and tucking them under doors and into vents to keep the smoke out. Once you’ve done that, you should call the fire department, and report your exact location in the building. Help will be on the way, so try to be patient, and stay calm.

Step 5: Signal Your Position

To further help the firefighters find you, you can signal your position by hanging a light-colored cloth out of your window. Don’t break any windows, and don’t open your window too much, because it might let smoke in. But if you have it open a little, rescue personnel should still be able to see your signal and get to you safely.


Step 6: Don’t Jump

If you live in a unit that’s higher than the second floor, don’t jump. It’s incredibly dangerous, and you’ll likely have better chances of survival waiting inside for help to arrive. While sitting and waiting might seem counter-intuitive when you know a fire is racing towards you, you also have to remember that panicked decisions often lead to costly mistakes. Luckily for all you current and future high-rise dwellers, today’s skyscrapers are being built with fire safety in mind. Modern high-rise buildings are made of fire-resistant materials, and have sprinkler systems, alarms, and voice communication systems to tell you what to do if the alarm goes off.

There’s also new technology that’s being developed to help get people on higher floors out faster. The SkySaver, for example, basically enables you to rappel down the side of a building on your own.

There’s also the Escape Rescue System, which is like an exterior elevator that can be folded up and stored permanently on a building’s roof. In the event of a fire, it picks up first responders at ground level, and then it can take them to the upper floors, where they can help anyone who’s trapped.


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