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How to Survive a Towering Inferno

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Sadly, the city of London has seen several tragedies lately — from multiple terrorist attacks to the massive inferno that ripped through a residential high-rise.

On Wednesday, June 14, the Grenfell Tower in North Kensington was engulfed in flames as a fire quickly spread throughout the building, damaging all 24 floors.

Currently, there are 79 confirmed fatalities, and scores of people were hospitalized for various injuries. Local authorities believe the number of deceased will increase as crews continue searching through the severely damaged building.

More than 200 heroic firefighters, 40 fire trucks and 20 ambulances tackled the blaze, which is still being investigated. There is some speculation that the materials used in recent safety renovations may have contributed to the spread of the fire, but the exact cause has yet to be determined.

Unfortunately, older buildings often lack proper fire safety features, which is why it’s important to consider the following fire safety rules if you live, work or ever visit a high-rise building:

  1. Make a safety plan. Just like you would in any other type of dwelling, you should know where the exits are and prepare an evacuation plan. If you live in a large building with multiple stairwell exits, you should identify which is closest to you and which could serve as a backup exit. I also suggest meeting with your building manager to learn about the building’s fire safety features and what emergency protocols (if any) are in place.
  2. Stay put. I realize this is easier said than done — our basic human instinct is always to get out. However, if you are in a high-rise and unsure of where the fire is located, you should stay put. Here’s why: Two years ago, a New York man named Daniel McClung died while trying to exit his building during a fire using the stairwell. He was overcome by smoke, and authorities believe he would have survived if he had simply stayed in his apartment. Of course, if the fire is in your apartment or flames have reached your floor, you have no choice but to leave.
  3. Use a smoke hood. The reality is smoke and toxic gases kill more people in a fire than the actual flames. This is why I recommend purchasing some type of smoke hood or mask. Now, you can spend hundreds of dollars on a custom gas mask with all sorts of bells and whistles, but the one I personally own is called Breath of Life, which costs only around $40. It’s a smoke hood that filters smoke and toxic gasses for 15–20 minutes. If you are forced to evacuate, something like this will help you safely escape the building.
  4. Avoid the balcony and roof. Unless you’re forced outside by smoke or flames, avoid going onto the balcony, where you may be exposed to rising smoke from lower floors. Likewise, never go up to the roof and expect a helicopter to rescue you. This is a Hollywood myth — helicopter rescues from rooftops are extremely rare and very difficult for first responders to execute.
  5. Invest in a SkySaver. One of the survivors of the London fire was seen rappelling from their window using sheets they tied together. While this should absolutely be a last resort, it may have saved their life. That being said, there is a product called the SkySaver that allows you to escape from up to 260 feet (approximately 24 stories). For $1,500 you can purchase the necessary gear to rappel at a rate of three–six feet per second. This is another option that should be used as a last resort. I’ve never personally tried this product, but if you live in a high-rise, it’s something you may want to consider if you can afford it.

As is often the case in an unexpected disaster, those who perished had very little time to react. The building was consumed by fire in less than an hour and the fast-moving flames trapped many of the residents.

If you live in or frequent high-rise buildings, I hope you will consider these safety tips to keep you and your loved ones safe. As I’ve said before, when disaster strikes, the time to prepare has passed. Plan now so you are ready to act when the time comes.

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