Intense heat, disorientation, thick black smoke and absolute terror – those caught up in a house fire will experience all of these.
As part of a campaign this month run by the Herts Fire and Rescue Service urging homeowners to plan an escape route in the event of fire, I spent an afternoon with fire crews at Hemel Hempstead Fire Station.
A blackout tour of the smokehouse training facility on Queensway saw it take me more than six minutes to grope around, find the stairs and carefully pick my way down them.
As I emerged, blinking in the sunlight, I was told that I was ‘four minutes too long’ and that I would have been overcome by the toxic fumes way before I’d had chance to escape.
Of course, I’d done it without the searing 300 degree heat, thick acrid smoke and the utter terror that would be present a real-life situation.
Next, I was shown the breathing apparatus (known as BA) shuffle which involves brushing your hand against the wall to stop you getting lost in the building, sweeping your feet to check for obstacles and waving your hands above your head to check for loose wires.
I was told that the crew had sadly lost two of their fire fighters around eight years ago after they had become entangled in wires during a rescue.
After the quick training session I was handed a uniform and heat-protective gloves before being given a helmet and breathing apparatus which weighed a hefty 20kg.
We ventured back in, but this time they cut the lights and pumped artifical smoke into the building which resembled a standard maisonette.
It was pitch black and you could not see your hand if you waved it centimetres in front of your face.
My instructions were hands on the wall at all times, stay close and move very slowly using the moves I had been taught earlier.
Due to the breathing mask, helmet and the sound of the oxygen tanks I found it difficult to hear the instructions given to me by the fire men, and I kept tripping over the hose.
I can only imagine what it must be like to wake up in the dead of night and only having your pyjamas to protect you from the flames and smoke.
We located a ‘casualty’ and managed to get them out safely before I downed a pint of water and stripped the thick protective clothing off.
The firefighters then ran through the top causes of house fires, which they say are TVs left on stand-by, smoking in bed and tumble driers, washing machines and dishwashers being left on overnight.
My short time in the smokehouse was a sobering and eye-opening experience, and one which has made me think twice about ever running my dishwasher overnight again.
As part of this month’s campaign, fire crews are urging homeowners to formulate an escape plan and ensure all exits are kept clear of obstructions, such as toys.
The fire service advise getting the household into a routine last thing at night, including shutting all doors, putting fire guards in place, switching off any electrical appliances that do not need to be left on and emptying ashtrays into a metal container.
Crews are happy to discuss your plan with you if you book a home fire safety visit by calling 0300 123 4046 or at www.hertsdirect.org/firesafety
Hemel Hempstead’s station commander Bob Jackson said: “The biggest problem is that people don’t think that it will happen to them, so they don’t plan for a fire in their home.
“People underestimate just how disorienting it is to be in a dark and smoke filled room.
“We’ve even been to incidents where people have got lost in their own bedrooms – it can be that confusing.
“I’d urge everyone to take a few minutes to think about how they’d find their way out if there was a fire in their home.
“It could make all the difference.”
Richard Thake, cabinet member for community protection at Herts County Council, said: “The safety of our residents is paramount.
“The best way to stay safe in the event of a fire is to get out and stay out.
“The quicker you can get out the less change of damage from toxic smoke.
“Having an escape plan might save you vital minutes in the event of a fire.
“Property is replaceable but lives are not.
“Don’t tackle the fire, get out of the property, call us and stay out.”