Ally Freeman, 7, of Harrisburg seemed perplexed as she watched smoke filtering down from the ceiling.
The other children had already crouched down on their hands and knees to escape the smoke, leaving no room on the floor for her to get down.
But thanks to the instructions by Harrisburg Firefighter Tristin Turner, Ally knew she shouldn’t panic. She calmly waited, and as the other 14 children crawled forward to feel the doors for heat, a space opened up.
Then she crouched down and crawled out of the room, down the staircase and out of the smoke house, a pull-behind camper rebuilt for children’s fire safety training.
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The children went directly to their agreed-on meeting place, completing the evacuation exercise as they participated in the Harrisburg Fire Department’s first Home School Fire Safety Day on Oct. 21.
About 100 home-schooled students attended the event at Providence Baptist Church in Harrisburg on that chilly Friday morning.
Jack Gonzalez, public life safety educator with the fire department, said he came up with the idea as he lay in bed one night, thinking about a coworker’s children who were home-schooled.
“I knew we had programs for the children in preschools and our public schools but couldn’t think of any programs offered for the home-school students,” Gonzalez said.
He took his idea to Harrisburg Fire Marshal Jeff Williams, who agreed to offer the necessary support and resources.
As Gonzalez called around to other fire departments to see what they might be doing, he was surprised to find none had been doing anything for home-schooled children.
Gonzalez contacted the N.C. Division of Non-Public Education to get the addresses of home schools in Harrisburg and the surrounding area. He mailed out 157 fliers, inviting students to the Harrisburg event.
Gonzalez said Home School Fire Safety Day will become an annual event.
It’s important, Gonzalez said, to reach these children, from infants to age 10, to teach them techniques and drills on how to react if caught in a fire.
The EDITH (Emergency Drills In The Home) tent demonstrated drills on the basics of surviving a fire in a home: Crouch down on your hands and knees to crawl below the smoke; use the back of your hand to feel heat at the door (which would indicate fire on the other side); evacuate and go to an established meeting area.
Gonzalez then demonstrated the “stop, drop and roll” technique for putting out a fire on oneself. About a dozen 2- to 4-year olds rolled around on a tarp in the parking lot.
Firefighters in full turnout gear can look a little frightening to them. Children in a fire sometimes hide from firefighters because of that fear, Gonzalez said.
So the children were encouraged to touch Firefighter Tyler Sneed and his gear once he was suited up at the next station.
“Hopefully by the end of the program, these children will not be afraid of firefighters,” Gonzalez said, “and they will show these emergency home drills to their parents, getting the message out to the adults as well.”
The smoke house is a pull-behind camper that has been rebuilt with two undersized floors to simulate the inside of a two-story house. It uses water-vapor fog for smoke, and students use the lessons taught to escape the structure safely.
Children age 4 and older are taken to an upstairs area similar to a child’s bedroom. After instruction, the door is closed, “smoke” starts to seep down from vents in the ceiling, and the children practice escaping a fire in the home.
Participants were also treated to a tour of the equipment on Harrisburg’s Fire Engine 2 to complete their day.
Ally’s mom, Julie Freeman, said, “This is an amazing opportunity for the home-schooled community, and I am glad to see more activities like these opening up for our children.”