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What can happen in three minutes?

The very second a fire starts in your home, a countdown clock starts ticking down from three minutes.

The very second a fire starts in your home, a countdown clock starts ticking down from three minutes.

That's the amount of time experts say a simple spark on the carpet or a cigarette tipped over onto a newspaper can become a lethal blaze hotter than 400 C. The short time frame is the result of modern manufacturing — newer, more modern homes and furniture items are built out of increasing amounts of synthetic materials that ignite more easily and have accelerated burn speeds.

Although St. Albert now has three fire stations strategically located for maximum area coverage and accessibility, the fact is it can still easily take an emergency response team more than three minutes from the original call to get to your address. What if the fire was already going for two minutes before you even noticed it? That kind of math means that time and fire are bitter enemies and once the fire is going, time doesn't usually win.

Right now, there is no fire. Your house is safe and you have all the time in the world to prepare for that unpleasant possibility no matter how unlikely it is. How many of us actually do that though? When was the last time you checked your smoke alarm? Do you even know if it runs on batteries and when they were last replaced? What kind of rating does your fire extinguisher have, if you even have one? Deputy fire chief Darrel Bliss and Chief Ray Richards do all of those things and know all of these answers, and it's not because they are required to for their job. It's because they've seen what happens when you don't.

Fire Safety Awareness Week only comes once a year, in October but since homeowners are reminded to check their smoke detectors twice a year, the Gazette, in co-ordination with the St. Albert Fire Services Department enlisted the help of a local family to conduct a basic step-by-step checklist and devise a simple fire escape plan.

The best case scenario: meet the McKays

Jodi McKay is a small business owner in St. Albert who lives with her three children — all under 10 years old — in a two-storey house with a basement. When it comes to fire safety, she admitted she considers it very important despite the fact she hadn't previously done anything in her house to be aware of hazards. This makes her the perfect candidate for this little procedure.

In the grand scheme, she was already in a pretty good place. She lives one kilometre from Fire Station No. 3, a distance that should take approximately three minutes to drive. Even better than that, she has a fire hydrant right at the foot of her driveway. This landmark is more significant because it does more than just improve a firefighter's advantage in tackling any possible structure fire.

One of the most important points that Bliss discussed is that it is critical for all family members to have a common meeting point outside of the house. After talking about it a few times, they came to an obvious conclusion.

"We decided that the fire hydrant is the place to go," McKay said, adding the whole process was much less difficult and complex than she imagined it might be. "I thought it was pretty simple. It was perfect."

That's typical, Richards indicated. Because fire safety has such dire implications, many people overthink the process, making a mountain out of a molehill.

"Many times the public makes fire prevention a much more difficult task than it really is," he explained. "[It's] common sense. The key points are early detection, knowing what to do if there is an emergency and having some pre-determined location outside the residence and to ensure that people don't go back in until it's declared safe by the fire department."

He said that it's all about the time and what you do with it. In less than 30 minutes, Bliss was able to show McKay how to test her smoke alarms with a candle, demonstrate a basic fire escape plan and point out some everyday hazards in the kitchen and throughout the household. Both he and Richards discussed a laundry list of topics starting with obvious heat sources like the stovetop, matches, candles and fireplaces. Afterward there were still many other hidden risks. One of the biggest issues for Richards is how people treat fire's fuel sources.

"The reason we have fires is because of the human element. We can't remove the 'human' from everything that we do. To help make our homes safe, besides early detection, keeping things neat and tidy and keeping flammables and compressed gases out of the home, what else can we do to be preventive?"

He strongly encouraged people to store propane tanks and jerry cans of gasoline in detached sheds or other outbuildings. He also elaborated on the importance of unplugging electrical appliances that aren't in active use, especially toasters and coffee makers. Richards said that you shouldn't have to go overboard with prevention though — just be reasonable.

The results and the homework

At the end of it all, McKay was pleased. Even with one child running around creating havoc, the demonstration went quickly and the points were fairly obvious with the task list that was easy to undertake. She even started to think about a schedule to check the smoke alarms and other elements of home fire safety.

"I don't believe I have a fire extinguisher so I know that is one change I need to make," she said. As for the alarm checks, she had it in the back of her mind as to how she would remember to do it in the future. "Definitely. It's funny because I need to do that for my furnace as well so I should probably plan [to check] them all on the same day."

As a last point, she mentioned that it wasn't scary for the whole family to plan ahead.

"It was good for the kids." One in particular has had more exposure to the topic through school and her Girl Guide Sparks program.

Anyone who is interested in learning more should feel free to stop by any fire station. You can find a lot of literature on safety and prevention but you can also speak with an administrator. There is also a wealth of online support to be found at Fire Prevention Canada's website (, including a few three-minute drills that you can do by yourself or with your family, all on your own time.

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