We’ve grinned through Chris Hadfield’s beamed-from-space rendition of David Bowie’s Space Oddity. We’ve watched, captivated, as water wrung from a towel in zero-g writhed its way over Hadfield’s fingers. We’ve put tasks on hold to observe tears balloon from Hadfield’s eye into a quivering, unpredictable blob. Now, perhaps, it’s time to pay attention to more serious stuff from our favourite astronaut – like what he’s learned about preparing for emergencies and conquering fear.

In his recently released autobiography, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Chris Hadfield writes: "In my experience, fear comes from not knowing what to expect and not feeling you have any control over what’s about to happen. . . . Nothing boosts confidence like simulating a disaster, engaging with it fully, both physically and intellectually, and realizing you have the ability to work the problem."

The peace in knowing

It was similar reasoning that guided my husband and me when we began thinking about teaching our kids about fire safety. We didn’t want to alarm our three children, but at the same time, we knew we were behind the ball. Our eldest was already seven years old, yet we had never taught our kids the fire-escape skills that could save their lives.1

It's time to do it, we decided, time to have our first family fire drill. Once our kids learn what to do in the event of fire, it will inspire confidence and help put worries to rest.

In truth though, the inspiring confidence and calm part was meant to reassure my husband and me more than the kids. Our children were blithely unaware of Canada’s fire safety statistics, but we weren’t.

According to Fire Prevention Canada, eight Canadians die in fires every week. An alarming 78 per cent of those deaths are from fires in the home, with most deaths occurring in the wee hours of the morning. Fire Prevention Canada also warns that families have only three minutes to escape a house fire before deadly conditions can develop.

The importance of practice

Unfortunately our family fire drill didn’t go as well as we had hoped. Looking back, it’s one of our family’s funniest memories, but at the time our fire drill was judged a sad and sorry failure.

Our three kids, plus my husband and I, exited our house swiftly, then gathered at the appointed meeting place on our front lawn. My husband had just begun to congratulate the kids on a great job, when he was interrupted by a loud wail from my daughter.

"Spirit! We left Spirit in the fire!"

In that moment, solely within Joanna’s imagination, the pet hamster she had given the grandiose name Spirit Adventure Wilson certainly was having an adventure, but a none-too-pleasant one.

"This is just pretend," my husband reasoned. "We’re only practicing." But Joanna wouldn’t be comforted. Her screams of woe grew louder and louder until we had our very own emergency siren standing right there on our front lawn, going full blast!

There you have it: the success of our first fire drill was hampered by a forgotten hamster!

Learning from our mistakes

Our family’s story is a somewhat frivolous example, but it does help illustrate another great point Chris Hadfield makes about practicing for emergencies. In a fascinating chapter entitled "The Power of Negative Thinking" Hadfield writes:

"Sometimes a sim[ulation] is . . . a crucible where you identify gaps in your knowledge and encounter domino effects that simply never occurred to you before."

In our family’s case, my husband and I never considered the pets. Most importantly, we neglected to instruct the kids not to rescue them. Although we recall the incident today with a smile, the lesson we learned at the time was sobering. If the fire had been real, Joanna might have wasted precious minutes trying to scoop up her hamster. (The hamster lived in an old fish aquarium which was much too heavy for her to carry.)

Can I urge you to practice your family’s fire escape plan soon? How about today? Talking about safety with your kids is good, but actually practicing safety plans is far more effective. That’s what truly helps identify problems and cement survival skills that might one day make all the difference.

Do you practice fire safety drills with your family? What about other basic emergency procedures? Take a peek at our "short list" and see how many safety steps you’ve already got covered!

Safety at home questionnaire

Regarding fire safety, my children know:

  • That it’s safer to keep their bedroom door closed at night
  • What our smoke alarms sound like, and what to do if they hear one. (Every bedroom should have a working smoke detector installed, or just outside in the hall)
  • Never to hide under the bed (or elsewhere) in a fire, but to get out fast
  • The location of your family’s outside meeting place
  • Two ways to escape from every room in the house
  • To crawl along the floor if there’s smoke
  • To feel a door for heat with the back of their hand before opening, and keep the door closed if it’s hot
  • How to open and exit their bedroom window (including the bug screen)
  • If they can’t get out, to quickly pack clothing around the door frame to stop smoke entering
  • If they can’t get out, to stay at the window, yell and wave light-coloured clothing
  • To stop, drop and roll if their clothes catch on fire
  • In a burning, multi-unit dwelling, that they must not use the elevator
  • In a burning, multi-unit dwelling, how to follow exit signs to the nearest exit
  • Never to re-enter a burning building

Regarding other safety drills, my children know:

  • What our carbon monoxide alarms sound like and what to do if they hear one
  • How to phone 911 from our home phone (for medical emergencies, if the only adult available is unconscious)
  • How to phone 911 from a cell phone (and use the emergency button to bypass the lock screen)
  • How to give their address to an emergency dispatcher
  • What to do in the event of emergencies specific to our region, such as a major flood or earthquake

Please note: This is by no means a complete safety checklist. For much more thorough help in safeguarding your family, consult websites like Fire Prevention Canada’s Fiprecan.ca and Safeathome.ca.)

Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.

1. Although my husband and I recognize that our future lies in God's hands, we also believe – based on our understanding of scriptures like Hebrews 11:7 – that we should take prudent steps to try to keep our family's future bright.

© 2014 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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