Three small children, aged six, four and two, are playing in the kitchen on a Saturday night when all of a sudden, smoke starts to fill the room.
They probably don’t start to worry until they notice the flames, and how quickly they’re spreading.
They’re scared, and they might be in trouble, and all they want is to get away. The fire doesn’t seem like something they will be able to stop, and in that moment, they just want to be somewhere where they can’t see it anymore.
So in a panic, they run to their mother’s room. They hide under a blanket, terrified, hoping that because they can’t see the fire, it can’t see them. Maybe if they just ignore it, it will go away.
The six-year-old, who has heard grown ups talk about what to do if there’s a fire, decides to run. He gets out of the apartment, and on the way down, tells a man that his brother and sister are still inside.
But they’ll never get out.
They’ll stay hidden, under a blanket, until it’s too late.
This story, as sickening as it is to anyone who is a parent or has had the responsibility of caring for young children, happened last weekend. The Chicago Tribune reports that the children were playing with the stove when the fire started, and the mother says she was out of the apartment, doing laundry.
Firefighter Kieran Shield talks about all the products in your home that can cause a fire. Post continues after audio.
While police have charged the 33-year-old mother with two counts of neglect of a dependent resulting in death, the story points to a phenomenon we can’t ignore: children often hide when there is a fire.
In physiology and psychology, many researchers point out that in addition to the fight or flight response, there’s also the tendency to freeze or hide. When an individual faces a threat, and they’re too young or physically weak to fight or escape, they freeze. A young child in a house fire doesn’t have the strength to fight or the knowledge to flee, so they hide from the threat. Sometimes under a blanket, under a bed, wrapped in curtains, underneath piles of laundry, or in wardrobes.
With an understanding of this phenomenon, firefighters are trained to look in inconspicuous places when there’s a fire.
“We definitely train our firefighters to do a thorough search in bedrooms, especially when there’s kids involved. They’ll hide in cupboards, they’ll hide anywhere,” says Leading Firefighter Kristen Ross from City of Sydney Fire Station.
“Kids can become easily disorientated if there’s no escape plan, and they sort of run around, they look for their parents, then it gets too hot, and they’re like, well, I’m just going to hide.”
“I think it’s just a natural instinct for them to try and get away from the danger,” she tells Mamamia. “So they’ll hide somewhere where they can’t see the smoke or the flame, and they’ll just wait it out as best they can until we come and rescue them.”
It’s this reality that motivates firefighters to go and visit schools, educating children on what to do if there’s a fire. If they’ve learnt that they can flee, they’re more likely to do it in the event of an emergency.
Just like the six-year-old in the story.
The natural instinct of children to hide is also the reason it’s so important to implement a fire escape plan for your home.
“You should have at least two escape routes from every room, so make sure you can get out of windows, windows and doors obviously,” Ross says. It’s then crucial to practice your plan, so that if a house fire does occur, children will “immediately think to that plan they’ve practised before and they’ll get out”.
Another factor that can further scare children is the firefighters themselves. Sometimes they won’t respond when a firefighter calls out for them, or they won’t come when a person is trying to rescue them.
“Often kids can be frightened of us as well, [because] we’ve got all our gear on,” says Ross.
“So we go to schools and we get one of the fire fighters to dress up in all the gear, and we make it fun and interactive. I think they get that in their heads that we are the good guys, and if we come into their room, they come with us.”
Ross says the most important thing for adults and children in the case of a fire is to “get out, stay out, and call triple zero”. But it’s a conversation every parent needs to have with their child, and a response they need to practice, because when the time comes, they might not be safe without it.