I called 911 — and here’s what I learned

Guest post by Allison

We came home from a wedding on Saturday night sometime after 1:00 AM. The house smelled like smoke but we didn’t think much of it at first; we figured the neighbours must have burned their dinner or something, and the smell’d stuck around because the windows were closed.

We opened the windows and started to get ready for bed but the smell didn’t dissipate — it kept getting worse. Smoke seemed to be coming up from the vents. I decided to go outside, just to check that everything was okay in the apartment below us.

From the street, even with the lights off, I could see the downstairs kitchen was filled with smoke. I knocked on the door and rang the bell but no one answered.

I grabbed our phone and called 911 while Chris managed to get the pets out of the house.

I’d never called 911, but I’m glad I didn’t hesitate to do it when I did. Minutes after my call, three firetrucks, three cop cars, and an ambulance were on our corner. When the firemen broke into the apartment they found one of the tenants and his 15 year old son had fallen asleep with a pot on the stove — the unit had a smoke detector but there were no batteries in it.

When thinking of all the what-ifs, I can’t help but feel incredibly fortunate for the following things:

  • How cool my partner can be under pressure. He managed to get the cat into her carrier and carry her, the rats and our laptops to safety. He had the presence of mind to also grab his keys and wallet on the way out the door. [REMEMBER! If you think there’s fire present, the best course of action is to leave all non-living things in the house and get the hell out! Love, Cat]
  • We came home when we did. Had we come home earlier, we may have gone to sleep before noticing the smoke. Had we spent the night in a hotel, we might not have had a house to come home to — and who knows what would have happened to the people downstairs!
  • The cat carrier was in one piece and on hand. Holding a squirming, snarling Simone would not have been easy.

While I hope I’ll never be scared like that again, if there is a next time, I want to be more prepared.

Lessons learned:

  • Always keep the cat carrier assembled in an easy-to-reach location. We often store ours in pieces since it takes up less space — we won’t do that again. We were lucky that we didn’t have to search for it and put it together when we needed it.
  • When neglecting the housekeeping, be wary that you never know when firemen will need to march through your home. Piles of laundry can be a safety hazard, on top of a huge embarrassment when your apartment is suddenly filled with strangers in uniform.
  • Back up important documents and photos online. If our home had burned down, the back up hard drive wouldn’t have done us much good if it went up in flames along with our laptops.
  • Make sure you have a working smoke detector.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to learn this stuff the hard way.

Situations like this can get scary fast. What’s the most important preparation step you can take to make sure a disaster doesn’t wipe you out?

Comments on I called 911 — and here’s what I learned

  1. We have a small fireproof lockbox that we keep our super-important documents and my jewelry in. It’s about double the size of a shoebox and has a handle so rather than take a chance on the veracity of its fire-proofness we carried it out with us when we were in the same exact situation. I recommend keeping all your vital files organized and easily accessible if you need to flee with them; secure online backup is also a good backup.

    • Agreed with one caveat – better to leave the laptop IN the house, just in case finding/grabbing it would risk your safety. Back up your files AND your documents in electronic format online. Dropbox.com has a free option with enough space for most people’s vital docs.

      My #1 tip – BUY RENTER’S INSURANCE!!! In case of the unthinkable, it will help you recover your losses.

      • I second this! I’ve been on small fires (toasters, attic electrical fires) where water causes way more damage than the fire. Firemen (and women, like me!) will do their best to lay down tarps & judiciously use water but water damage is a big deal.

  2. This is a great advice, and the cat carrier thing struck a chord the most with me. My fiance and I currently don’t have a cat, but I’m going to encourage my parents to move their cat carrier to a more convenient location than where it is right now. Glad you’re all okay!

  3. We have trained our cat to use her cat box as her bed so there’s never a fight to get her in to it in an emergency, just throw a treat in and shout “Dulcinea, bedtime!” and we’re ready to go.

    Unfortunately I never know where my keys are so have had to learn how to climb out of various windows with a cat box, not fun!

    • Screw the keys. Your house is on fire, grab your cat and go. You can always change locks/get your landlord to replace them later, if the fire engulfs your house and melts the keys. They’d probably survive anyways, metal has such a high melting point, much higher than the typical house fire would burn.

      • Uummm, no, not screw the keys at all. The problem with not being able to find the keys is that you can’t physically leave the house without them. All our doors are locked at all times and there is no way to open them without the keys, hence my statement about practicing to climb out of windows. Why the insurance company thinks this is safer than latching bolts I will never know.

        • This is one of the leading causes of death in housefires. Why don’t you try a plastic hook by the door. Please don’t become one of the countless people who are found dead from smoke inhalation just inside their home. Smoke is what will get you, and it’s terrifying to see how quickly that can happen.

        • I used to live in a house whose deadbolts were keyed on both sides, so we couldn’t open the locked door without using a key. Our solution? Leave a key in the inside deadbolt lock all the time. If your locks allow the same (and will lock from the outside even with a key in the inside), it saves the fumble for keys when you need to get out fast.

          • Just FYI, one of the biggest reasons you see deadbolts keyed on both sides is because burglars can often smash the glass on the door to get to the unlocking mechanism, without having to try to pick a lock or anything. Only one of our doors is like this – the one with glass panes in it (also has a window next to it). So be a littl wary of leaving a key IN the lock, in case a burglar punches through and unlocks the door himself (happened to a friend of mine recently, and boy, was it a good thing they had insurance). Maybe always keep a key near the door, but out of sight of it, and definitely not within reach.

      • A pair of friends endured a fire in a neighboring apartment which spread into their unit. They immediately left, without their keys, but my friend’s keys were stolen after the firemen came and the door was open. Because my friend’s car had a button to lock/unlock the car remotely, the thief was able to find his car in the parking lot and stole it.

        I know it’s minor in the face of a FIRE burning your place down, but it was still unfortunate, especially since the fire itself did minor damage to their place.

  4. Very scary, but Lady Luck was on your side!

    We specifically got smoke detection tied in with our alarm system so we can never turn it off and there isn’t a battery that could die.

  5. So glad you are all OK. Thanks for the reminder that I should have the cat carrier in a more accessible place… I don’t even know where it is right now.

  6. I used to work at a crisis hotline. Sometimes we would be called upon to connect folks with 911 (mostly in my local area, but also several others in surrounding counties). Here are some additional suggestions I have for initial contact with 911 operators:

    1. Give a very quick summary of the situation (e.g. “My apartment building is on fire.”
    2. Usually then you are asked for the address. In some areas, if you can give cross-streets or other major landmarks in addition to the address, even better (e.g. “It’s 123 Main Street by the corner of West Ave, right next to the mini-mart”)
    3. THEN if there are other pertinent details to provide, do so. For example: “My partner and I got out but no one is answering downstairs,” “There is an older lady on the first floor who has trouble walking,” “There are three apartments but the family on the second floor are away for the weekend,” etc.

    Granted, this is really easy to say now and not always easy to remember when in an emergency situation. Most operators I have spoken to from a variety of counties (mainly in the Finger Lakes and Central New York State) are good at “guiding” the conversation to get the important stuff out of you first so they can begin to send the First Responders, then getting additional details they can send along the way as the First Responders head your way.

    Hopefully none of you need it, but things like this come up, so thought I’d pass the info along.

    • Very true. Having worked in a similar role I’d also recommend answering all the questions you’re asked, they are being asked for a reason. The operator will be trained, they aren’t just wasting your time and arguing won’t help. If you don’t understand the question ask. Giving more info than necessary is better than not answering at all. It could mean the difference between the fire crew arriving 2 minutes later with all the equipment they need and them arriving 2 minutes earlier but watching your house burn down because they didn’t have all the relevant information.

      Also depending what country you’re in, learn the NATO phonetic alphabet or the local equivalent, it makes giving addresses and postal codes much easier in high stress or noisy situations.

  7. I have to agree with the one commenter above, definitely know the address. If you’re on a land line, they should be able to determine the address you’re at, but if you’re on a cell phone, sometimes the closest tower is blocks away and their address would lock onto that.

    • Some cell phone companies (t-mobile for example) let you set a 911 address. This is the address that will show up when you call 911. Then you just need to confirm that you are at the address they have on their screen. It’s much faster than trying to tell someone your whole address, especially if you have a weird street name or a long address.

  8. Wow. Glad everyone got out safely. Yeah, we’ve got sentimental jewelry, cats, fish, photos, etc. but honestly, the only “thing” I’d worry about grabbing is my 4-year-old son. My (dead) grandmothers would understand that their rings were destroyed for the sake of their great-grandson. Things don’t matter. People do. And yes, I’d scrifice my cats for my son (sorry, Elaine and Cinder!!)

  9. Think about an emergency exit: what route are you going to take when flames obstruct the normal exit?
    In my student housing, our landlord made sure we all knew where to go in case of fire (in my case, climb out of my window onto the roof of the neighbours!) This is especially important if your in an apartment building and not on the ground floor.
    And communicate this emergency exit or route with your housemates!

  10. I think in addition to moving the cat carrier someplace easily accessible, I’m going to make sure other pet emergency supplies are stored in it. Extra dog leash, a little food for both, small water bottle, copies of Rabies certificates. All in a duffle bag I can pull out quickly. We can be ready for fire, flood, fleeing hurricanes, apocalypse, etc.

  11. If all else fails with planning your cat box/pet supplies scenarios just grab the pet and run.

    When our house was on fire I had to get the hell out right there and then. I grabbed the dog and ran. When I was outside on the grass verge across the street, I held onto him by his collar. Luckily he was well trained so despite all the noise and fuss he mostly did as he was told.

    Obviously this wouldn’t work for all pets but seriously, plan to have the cage or whatever, but also be prepared to fuck that plan if needed. Those extra seconds could be the difference between life and death.

    • That’s why we’ve worked hard to train our dog (and working on our new puppy) with the sit and stay command regardless of distractions. She also knows hand signals. Being able to at least have a little control over them in a crazy situation like that (if we couldn’t move their carriers) is so important to us.

      It also came in handy when I started to walk into our backyard with our dog and there was another dog that had gotten into our yard. I was able to stop her and get her into the house before the other dog saw us. And since it was aggresive (when I called animal control) it saved us from some potential injuries.

  12. I live very near the borders of three states – so when I had to dial 911, the call didn’t go to the correct county. I’ve found this is pretty common on cell phones. Programming a 911 address in your phone works if you’re at home, but I was two counties over adopting a dog from an animal shelter when I saw a horrible motorcycle/truck crash.

    Since most of you who will ever call 911 will do so on a cell phone, you may run into similar problems, so I suggest being very aware of your surroundings (and of your actual address when you can) and at least being clear to the 911 operator what county you’re in so they can transfer you quickly and correctly.

    If you’re transferred INCORRECTLY, like I was, don’t let them hang up on you or you’ll have to start all over again. The second operator hung up on me when he realized I’d been transferred to the wrong county, and it took another few minutes to call again and speak with someone who could help. No one in our situation was hurt (their vehicles were totalled, but they were lucky), but those minutes could have been life or death if things had turned out differently.

    After the crash was cleared away, I called both stations where operators had acted incorrectly and reported my experience, in the hopes that if a similar call comes in to either of them, they handle it right next time.

  13. A few years ago, my roommate and I thought people were trying to break into our apartment. (We bolted the door at night, and these people apparently had a key to all locks but that one.) We called 911 and fortunately, it turned out that the intruders were gas people our building management neglected to tell us about. But the police officers said that it was totally fine and that we should always call 911 if we feel unsafe. Even if it ends up being a perfectly normal misunderstanding, it’s way better to call and get help immediately.

  14. One thing I’ll toss into the discussion – Your brain will work a little differently in the heat of the moment. You don’t really know how you’ll react until it’s upon you. I was recently alone in a hotel room when the fire alarm woke me from a dead sleep. I leapt out of bed, decided that there was ‘NO TIME FOR UNDERWEAR’ and put on jeans, hoodie, flip-flops and stuck my head out into the hallway. Nothing looked/smelled amiss. Some guy down the hall stuck his head out at the same time, we made eye contact, and we burst out laughing. It was not funny. I wasn’t feeling happy or humorous. I was quite frantic and feeling confused, but my brain somehow connected the ‘laugh’ receptors. I went back into my hotel room, knew I had to leave, and then stood there staring at my laptop and purse, trying to decide which one I should ‘save’. At least 30 seconds lapsed before I realized I could very easily grab both. Luckily when I got downstairs, I was told it was a false alarm (the steam from someone’s shower set it off apparently) – but it was interesting to see how my brain reacted to the situation.
    It was a little embarassing, in hind site, to know I didn’t just get up and get out. I mean really – there’s nothing more obvious than “if you hear an alarm, get out” – yet it took me WAY longer than it should have to actually do-so.

    • had a very similar situation at 5 am at hotel in Paris. I ended up in my bf’s pants and a hoodie (also thought to myself “no time for underwear”)and followed someone-still no idea who- down a back staircase and through a kitchen to the street. I only had one eye open the whole time. I did have the presence of mind to grab my passport, but didn’t realize that I was holding it until I was standing on the street with bed-head and a very sour expression.
      It was a false alarm as well, but I was glad that we were able to react quickly and, for the most part, correctly. The couple we were traveling with heard the alarm and decided to go back to sleep. I shudder to think what would have happened had it been a real situation.
      (*humorous side note- because I had grabbed his pants, boy had to make his great escape in just his boxers. I also didn’t realize this until we hit the street.)

  15. I only have one cat carrier and two cats. Normally it’s not a big deal because I never have to carry them both at once, but I often think about what I’d do in case of a fire. Scary stuff.

    • Ditto, but 3 cats and 2 carriers. I bring this up to my husband from time to time, and he points out that we keep the carriers in a storage closet in the basement anyway – which we would NEVER take the time to go get if our house was on fire. We figure it would be a cat under each arm as we run.

  16. As far as any extra planning goes, something I would suggest as someone in the fire service is have your local fire department come to your house to do an inspection. Not all departments might do this, but I know my home department, plus all the surrounding counties, do. It not only allows the department members to know what they would be walking into if something were to ever happen, but they can help you as the homeowner plan for different types of emergencies. This might seem extreme to some people, and that’s cool, but it really is a good idea if your local department is willing to do it.

    If you live in an apartment, it’s likely your local department has already planned for the main hallways, stairways, lobby, etc., but they may not have gotten a chance to look into one of the units. Go ahead and invite them!

    Just remember: a fire department can not just come into your house uninvited and do this. You have to arrange it. Again, I strongly advise it as someone in the fire service, but it is always up to you as the homeowner. 🙂

    Also, always have a fire extinguisher on hand! Be sure and read the labels and know how to use it before you need it, though!

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