My three close encounters convinced me that we all need fire-safety lessons

A series of frightening incidents has left Maryam Ismail determined to be more fire conscious in the UAE.

Fires similar to this one at an Abu Dhabi tower building show the benefits of honing one's fire-evacuation plan. Photo: Delores Johnson / The National
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A car going up in flames, a scorched building and – almost – a towering inferno. It sounds like a trailer for a Die Hard movie, but these are just recent episodes in my life.

During Ramadan, I was kept busy working to settle a dispute between the owner and tenants of a villa that caught on fire because of a faulty air-conditioner. The family was left standing barefoot on the pavement for two hours, still in their nightclothes, waiting for the fire brigade to arrive.

The owner of the villa declared the tenants to be at fault and demanded payment for the damage. The tenants were desperate to get the deposit and their postdated cheques back so they could look for a new place. They went to the police and tried to settle with the owner, but he was adamant.

My part was to find people who knew the ropes within the Municipality. I don’t know exactly what happened, but in the end, the owner allowed the tenants to leave.

Later, a few days after Eid, my daughter’s friend rang our door bell. “The building is burning,” she said. Seconds later, the smell of smoke wafted through the door. Quickly, I turned off the food on the stove, shut off the electricity and ran out. In the hallway, I was met by puffs of white smoke, but it wasn’t clear where it was coming from.

We chose the fire exit away from the car park, figuring that cars might explode if they got too hot. Only the first two floors we reached had any lights. From there, we – my two girls, my neighbour and I – ran eight flights in the dark, gripping on to a dust-crusted handrail. Then I saw the three boys and their sister from the 15th floor. They were in tears. “Where’s your mother?” I asked. “Upstairs,” answered the middle boy.

They were all under 10; why wasn’t their mother with them? They weren’t the only children separated from their parents. A brother and a sister had been left alone while their parents went for a walk. Had it not been for my daughter telling them, they might have suffered from smoke inhalation, because it was coming from a source right next to their apartment.

Unlike the situation with my villa friends, the fire department came quickly. Two firemen asked some questions of the crowd and then jumped into the lift. What happened to the “don’t use the lift in case of fire” rule?

As the pavement filled up with tenants, I looked up. Just below the area where the smoke was coming out of the building, I saw two faces looking down at me from the balcony. Didn’t they know about the fire?

Thankfully, the emergency was over quickly and no great damage was done.

A few days later, my husband came home from the dawn prayer, telling me that, down the street, a car was engulfed in flames. The authorities were called, but as they waited, my husband tried to convince the building watchman to use a fire-extinguisher to put the fire out – but he refused.

“It was melting from the inside,” my husband told me of the car. The result was that the building directly behind the car has been scorched black by the intense heat. It’s a miracle that the building didn’t catch on fire too. The car is still there. It looks like Godzilla took a bite out of it.

Luckily in all of these encounters with fire, no one was hurt. But I do worry about the lack of fire-safety awareness in my community. Am I the only one who remembers that you shouldn’t go back into a fire to get your passport, or take time gathering valuables in a suitcase, or send little children out into the flames on their own. Do children still learn the “stop, drop and roll” technique in case they ever catch on fire? Do they know to cover their faces with a wet cloth to avoid smoke inhalation?

I think schools, radio and television, text message and billboards– every form of media – should be used to spread the fire-safety message. I’ve walked through a cloud of soot and heat only to be met with bright flames at the end; I know how scary and dangerous a fire can be, but if people know what to do, they can save themselves from dying or getting hurt.

Maryam Ismail is a sociologist and teacher who divides her time between the US and the UAE