YMCA fire teaches alarming lesson

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“YMCA fire teaches alarming lesson”

SOUTHERN CITY; 12/23/2005 – A decision to ignore a fire alarm resulted in agonizing personal horror before a dramatic fire department rescue saved the day.

Melanie “BZ” Giese, 50, is the sister of Fifth Circuit Solicitor Barney Giese. She oversees distribution of more than $1,000,000,000 in Medicaid funds to more than 1 million recipients for Health and Human Services.

Her alter ego is the instructor for a popular grueling pre-dawn exercise class called Tempos at the downtown YMCA. There, three times a week beginning at 6 a.m., she leads stationary bicyclists through a grueling work-out pumping to tunes like Bruce Springsteen's “Born to Run” and Meat Loaf's “Paradise By the Dashboard Light.”

At 5:40 a.m. on December 14 she was warming up alone on the sixth floor of the YMCA when fire horn sounded. She ignored it because she was tired of stopping every-thing for false alarms…there had been several recently. This alarm, however, was real - four floors below a dryer used for towels was belching flames and smelly smoke.

Giese, sharing her story on Thursday in hopes that others would learn from her experience, said “The more I look back on it, the scareder [sic] I get.”

The front desk receptionist, Sheila Drennan, dashed up the central stairwell when she heard the alarm. Seeing the fire she ran back down and dialed 911.

Patrons fleeing the building told Drennan that there were still people on the fifth floor so she raced up to warn them. “I could not not [sic] go,” she explained. Through the thickening smoke she climbed to the fifth floor and yelled at five people on treadmills to leave. One floor up, Giese continued to exercise. Drennan hadn’t continued to the sixth floor because no classes were scheduled there and Giese had not told her she was going there.

Seeing the fire trucks approach through the window did not stop Geise. She still thought it was a false alarm as they had also come on previous occasions.

However, when she opened the central stairway door a few minutes later and saw thick smoke she thought “Oh, my God, this is real.“

The smoke-filled central stairway was the only way down, so, choking, coughing, eyes stinging, Giese began the descent. She fell just above the fifth floor. Lying on the landing she thought she might crawl the rest of the way but decided she couldn't make it.

Struggling to stand up, she entered the fifth-floor exercise room and ran to a window. She could see the fire trucks and tried to open the window but it was stuck. She finally got it opened, stuck out her head, and yelled, "I'm stuck up here!”

But no one came – she was alone, completely alone.

A few minutes later Joseph Alaimo and three other fire fighters in full protective fire gear burst into the room, “It felt so good to see them. I wasn't alone anymore.”

Alaimo began talking to Giese to calm her. “She seemed pretty frightened. She was in a dangerous situation.”

When Alaimo told Giese that her way down was the fire department’s 100’ aerial ladder because the smoke in the stairwell made that way too dangerous she replied “Don't be ridiculous. I hate heights.” Alaimo led her out of the window, and ten minutes later they reached the safety of the ground.

Giese went by ambulance to [medical center] emergency room where tests showed that toxic carbon monoxide had been absorbed into her blood, but her dizziness and confusion rapidly abated.

The fire may precipitate some change. The YMCA is considering a public address system, and Giese thinks she may respond to fire alarms when they ring.


What we don’t know:

  • whether or not the central stairway actually was the only exit from the sixth floor
  • whether or not there were phones available on the upper floors to call for help (911)
  • where the alarm signal was audible…she heard it on the sixth floor, but at least some on fifth floor did not leave until warned by the front desk clerk
  • whether or not there was an automatic fire sprinkler system that was ready to operate
  • whether or not fire drills were practiced on a regular basis at the YMCA

What should always be provided:

  • Two separate ways of safely accessing the building exterior from each programming area; if in doubt about EXIT adequacy, consult your local fire marshal or the authority having jurisdiction
  • An appropriate number of smoke and/or fire alarms on each level of your facility
    • they should receive regular documented testing
    • they should be 110v-AC; if not, documented battery changes should occur semiannually
  • Evacuation plans that are clearly posted in each room
    • They should be on the knob side of the door, shoulder high, without obstructions
    • They should show two separate pathways to the building exterior
  • Automatic and manual fire alarms, with documented fire drills
  • An Emergency Action Plan that covers this and other emergencies; included should be a means, without endangering staff, of verifying that the building is clear

What should be trained and followed:

  • When a fire alarm sounds, leave immediately. You may not get a second chance.
  • Stay calm. Panic precludes thinking smart
  • In the event of fire in a multi-floor building, use the stairs, don't use the elevator
  • Check closed doors before opening…don't open one that is hot to the touch, use an alternate exit
  • If you must escape through smoke, staying low makes it easier to breathe and keeping contact with a wall surface helps keep your bearings.
  • If your clothing catches fire STOP, DROP, and ROLL
  • If you are trapped by smoke and unable to exit the area:
    • close the door behind you
    • use any towels or spare clothing to stuff into the cracks around the door to ward off the smoke
    • if a phone is available, call 911, tell them who you are and where you are
    • open the window and draw attention to yourself. Signal firefighters by voice and/or waving your arms and a cloth, if available
    • Don’t jump! The fire department will come for you

Please call us at 800-463-8546 to discuss this or any other risk management safety tip, or visit our web site at www.redwoodsgroup.com to learn more about camp risk management issues.

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