A few weeks ago, I was attending an emergency preparedness session at work. Most of the talk was about our building’s emergency plans and everybody’s role in case of a major disaster. When the time came to cover the topic of fire, the speaker began with our work place but eventually ended up talking about our very homes. His point was clear and simple: smo-ke-de-tec-tors. Of course, I thought, I knew that. Mine had just been officially inspected a few weeks before, I felt confident.

Then I forgot about it all.

R. however, hadn’t attended the meeting. He hadn’t even been invited. But a few nights ago, when he got up in the early hours of dawn to go to the bathroom, he still immediately sensed something was wrong. There was smoke everywhere. Barefoot, he got out of his room and headed for the exit where he ran into fire. He must have tried to get through, then realized he couldn’t and turned around towards the backdoor. That probably saved his life. He got out and called 9-1-1 from another house.

I visited him the same day at the Vancouver General Hospital. He was still in the ER, parked on a bed in a semi-secluded area, hooked up to an IV, in great pain and still in shock. Large first and second degree burns hurt like hell, they say. He was lucky. He got out alive. His face was black, swollen to twice its normal size and his hair was half gone, yellowish and curled up close to the scalp. His hands and feet were still mostly bare, a few gauze compresses, the burns half exposed, large patches of skin dangling down. I guess he was barely out of triage.

By now, I’ve been told he’s been transferred to the burn unit and has disappeared under heavy bandaging. One can still visit him but they have to wash their hands seriously. Burns are very susceptible to infection.

Bottom line is, it seems there was no smoke detector, or if there was one, it didn’t work. Like I said, he was lucky.

So here’s the point of my story. GET A SMOKE DETECTOR! ALREADY HAVE ONE? GET ANOTHER! HAVE MULTIPLE? TEST THEM! They aren’t just for fun, they are critical!

And on top of that, you should know the basics! Once you realize there is a fire, you have no more than a few seconds to get out, at best a few minutes. Don’t think, don’t hesitate, don’t question, just get out. Fire is evil, but smoke is the real killer, and it rises. Drop to the floor and stay low! That, again, can mean life or death. The temperature difference between knee level and eye level is in the many hundreds of degrees. Check doors for heat, don’t just throw them open because they lead to where you want to go. Once out, stay out. Don’t go back in! Have an agreed meeting point outside so that you know where everybody is. Have a plan and rehearse it.

These are simple steps. But they save lives. How much do you value yours? And that of your loved ones? And how much do YOU think YOU mean to me or to someone ELSE who loves YOU?