A burning question

by Terry Riley on October 15, 2004

Being awakened in a hotel in the middle of the night by the sound of a fire alarm is nothing new–certainly nothing new to me. Over the years, I’ve evacuated a dozen hotels in three countries in response to fire alarms.

Sure, most of the alarms turned out to be false, but four–four!–were the real deal: Lights, sirens, fire trucks, firefighters, smoke and flames! There were no casualties in the fires I escaped, but people did die in other hotel fires during those years.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, the number of what it calls “civilian” deaths from hotel fires has been dropping over the years, but there are still about two dozen people killed each year in hotel and motel fires in the U.S. Earlier this year, for instance, nearly half of the 46 registered guests at a Comfort Inn in Greenville, South Carolina were killed or injured when that hotel caught fire.

Since most hotel and motel fires are survivable, why are people still dying? The answer to this question is part technology, part psychology.

Thomas Olshanski, spokesperson for the United States Fire Administration (USFA), points to the importance of technology.

“Sprinklers and smoke detectors are the two most important technologies to protect yourself from fire,” says Olshanski. So important in fact that the staff of the USFA will not stay in a hotel or motel that does not have fire suppression sprinklers in the guest rooms. (And neither should you.)

The other part of the survivability equation is psychology. This is where you must get involved in your own safety. The more you understand about how you and others are likely to respond in an emergency, the better your chance of coming out of it safe and sound.

An emergency is an infrequent, unpredictable event that requires an immediate response to avoid further disaster. Unfortunately it is precisely these characteristics of infrequency and unpredictability that contribute to the confusion that unprepared people demonstrate in an emergency.

Without having given it some forethought, people simply don’t know what to do. Consequently they make mistakes–often with fatal results.

Even worse unprepared guests may take their cues on how to behave in an emergency from people who are as clueless as they. Indeed, psychologists have found that in emergency situations it is common to find that only about a quarter of the people affected take appropriate action.

What do the rest do? Interestingly, they are unlikely to become hysterical. Instead they simply do nothing.

They freeze.

They freeze because they don’t have a plan. And they don’t have a plan because they believe, as do most people (and as did the fire victims in Greenville), that tragedies happen to others, not to them. This is a very human–and very perilous–characteristic.

But disasters play no favorites. Every one of us travelers is likely to be caught in an emergency where we must act to save ourselves. As a veteran hotel-fire survivor, I have a plan. Do you?

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