GTPulse Weekend Planner: Fire Safety and Zombies
I’m not exactly sure when it happened, but somewhere along the way, my sons became relentless in what I often refer to as “light rebellion.” It’s not like they were knocking over liquor stores or stealing cars. No, my children became adamantly against anything I ever deemed to be “healthy” or “good for you.” Even if they were enjoying whatever “it” was… If I ever let on that “it” was healthy, or even in some remote way microscopically beneficial to them, they would reverse course, divorcing themselves of whatever favorable food or useful activity I had cold-heartedly duped them into trying in the first place.
We began a long played game of cat and mouse: me, luring them into vegetables by mincing them into meatloaf and them, somehow discovering the crushed vitamins I would add to their spinach disguised by fruit smoothies that I may have deceitfully declared contained ice cream.
So, like any dubious parent blinded by the health and safety of her children, I began trying to teach my boys lessons in ways that might actually pique their interest. When it came time to practice escaping a home fire, for example, I had to improvise after my sons became convinced they could battle through the fire using a mattress or a big blanket.
They even thought they could wrap a wet towel around their face and just walk out the front door.
“What about just going out a window?” I would ask, but their minds were transported to some movie where the hero traipses through a burning building with minimal issues.
“Hollywood hasn’t helped our industry,” says Kevin Sehlmeyer, Michigan’s State Fire Marshal.
“It’s not bright, it’s not some Hollywood set. It’s dark. It’s thick. When I was a firefighter, I spent 36 years crawling on the floor because of that smoke. You can’t see, you can’t breathe, and the fire spreads so fast, you might not have time to grab your shoes, let alone go back for something.”
Kevin likens his post as the state fire marshal to working in a Nascar pit. “I get to wear a lot of hats,” he jokes, “And everything is happening very fast. We’re working on a lot of different things, but each of the seven programs I oversee is rooted in safety.”
Fire prevention, especially preventing fatal fires in the state of Michigan, is his main focus.
I tell Kevin how I turned our home escape practices into Zombie escape practices when my kids were younger, and I’m somewhat surprised when he laughs and says, “Sure, that works.”
“As long as they’re practicing two ways out. And, two ways out doesn’t always mean a front door and a back door. It means the closest exit. It could be your window, or the window in another room. My kids are 18 and 19 now, but I can’t tell you how many times I would ask them to find the nearest exit wherever we were. We practiced letting the kids open the windows. That’s important, can your kids even open their windows? Anyhow, we had a lot of fun over the years letting our kids go out the window.”
But, Kevin is quick to stress that having an escape plan is just a piece of the fire safety puzzle.
“The idea is to first have the right equipment to warn you there’s a fire in the first place. We really love the new smoke alarms with the 10 year lithium ion batteries, but some people have the smoke alarms, with the 9 volt batteries. You can still buy those smoke alarms, and it is very important to change those batteries every year, which many do around daylight saving time. But, you have to change your smoke alarms every 10 years no matter what. That’s important, smoke alarms, no matter the batteries, have to be replaced every 10 years. If you buy one with a 10 year battery, all you have to do is make sure it’s still working. You don’t have to change the battery every year. But, if you buy the other ones, you have to buy a new battery every year. So, in the long run, you’re probably saving money if you buy the smoke alarms with the 10 year lithium batteries.”
A third piece to fire safety is teaching people to close their doors.
“It breaks my heart more than anything else when I read a fire report that shows the victim was within feet of an exit and didn’t get there. I read every report, and they’re all heartbreaking, but there’s one that I will never forget. It was clear the Mom and her kid had started down the stairs and turned around because of a fire. We saw their handprints in the soot. She got back to the bedroom and opened a window to get some air, but she didn’t close the door. She didn’t close the door…and, because the fire thrives on oxygen, it was attracted to that fresh air. Had they closed the door and gotten their heads out the window, they probably would have made it. That one sends chills down my spine.”
A fire needs three things to burn—a triangle if you will. The first is fuel, which is pretty simple. The fire needs something that will burn. The second is heat. It needs to be hot enough to make the fuel burn. The third, of course, is oxygen.
“So, when we think about why house fires spread so much quicker now than say, 50 years ago, we have to look at a few things. First of all, our homes are built with a lot of synthetic stuff. And, our homes are a lot more open—the open floor plan allows the fire to spread easier because there aren’t walls, there aren’t doors. And, beyond that, our stuff is a lot more synthetic. Granted, that fluffy synthetic stuff is a lot more comfy than the stuff we used to have. My couch, for example, is a lot more comfortable than my Grandparents’ couch. My mattress—that memory foam—that’s synthetic, even our bedding is synthetic. And, that’s not to say we need to stop buying that stuff. We just need to know that stuff is very fast burning fuel for the fire. Some homes can be completely engulfed in five minutes. Think about that. You have less than five minutes to get out of the house. That’s more important than ever. You don’t have time. So, having a home escape plan, having working smoke alarms and closing your doors—that’s what you need. That’s the trifecta to stay alive during a fire.”
Another opportunity for fire protection is to have sprinklers installed. Kevin says Hollywood hasn’t helped convey that message accurately, either.
“Think about every movie or show you see. One sprinkler head senses the heat from the fire—and it’s the heat, it’s not the smoke, so it doesn’t happen just because you burn dinner— but one sprinkler head senses that and all the sprinklers go off. The reality is that if the stovetop is on fire and it triggers the sprinkler, that’s the only one that goes off. They’re set off by temperature, not smoke. Hollywood tells us that if the sprinkler goes off, all of the sprinklers go off and it ruins the home, and that is simply not true. It will trigger only that sprinkler head and knock down the fire where it is until the fire department can get there. If there’s a fire in your kitchen, it’s going to activate the sprinkler in the kitchen—not your bedroom, not your living room, just the kitchen.”
Kevin hopes people know that having their homes sprinkled is an option, even if it’s not required. Whether you’re building new or you want to retrofit something in your existing home.
“I’d like every home in Michigan to be sprinkled, just like every commercial building is required to be sprinkled. I think the first step, though, is to let people know that’s an option. And, let them decide. Sometimes, say in new construction, it might cost the same amount to put sprinklers in your home as it does in your yard. I think when people think of that, it surprises them.”
I ask Kevin if he thinks having a sprinkler system installed in homes will save lives.
He pauses a moment before answering, “Absolutely. I absolutely believe it would save lives.”
There’s another pause in our conversation, and I let the silence linger for a moment, until Kevin continues, “I read every fatal fire report. Those stories stay with me. I read them and I imagine this isn’t just a fire. This isn’t just a victim of fire. Every one of our citizens that dies in a fire is a person, with a family, and that death impacts the entire family. These are real Michigan families whose family story is forever changed. And, if I can do anything to prevent that family tragedy, I will.”
This weekend, whether you’re celebrating Halloween quietly at home, handing out candy to trick-or-treaters, or taking your own goblins to collect sweet treats around the neighborhood, consider adding a new tradition to your family story. Consider practicing home escape plans, checking smoke alarms and even practicing closing doors to your Halloween revelry. Sure, on the surface it might not seem as fun as the thrill of free candy, but it’s more important almost anything else you’ll do.
And, let’s face it…how fun would it be to dress up in costume and practice your exit strategy?
“I think that’s a great idea,” says Kevin.
Just think of the chuckle the neighbors will have when they see the family practicing escaping through a window dressed as zombies.
Kevin Sehlmeyer was appointed state fire marshal in 2017 by Governor Rick Snyder. He served more than 30 years on the Grand Rapids Fire Department before retiring in January of 2016. Prior to his service in Grand Rapids, Kevin was a crash rescue firefighter for the Michigan Air National Guard.
Many local fire departments have programs to install smoke alarms at no cost to you. Contact your local fire department if you have alarms that need to be installed, or if you can’t afford to purchase new smoke alarms.
Kevin’s pro tip: A chirping smoke alarm means the battery is low. It does not mean it’s working.
Extras- Kevin asked that we include a video from Underwriters Laboratories of side by side room fires. One uses legacy (vintage) furniture, the other modern furnishings. He says this is not meant to discourage people from purchasing new furniture—just to prove that synthetic fibers decrease the amount of time you have to escape a fire.