Amid high-profile arson attacks in Japan, how can we safely escape from burning buildings?

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HIGASHIOSAKA, Osaka – January 17 marks a month since the arson incident at a clinic in Osaka City’s Daycare Ward. Many of the victims could not be evacuated and died from ingesting poisonous carbon monoxide that filled the building. Many were also killed by fires during the great Hanshin earthquake 27 years ago.

But how are we supposed to evacuate when we’re shrouded in smoke from a fire? A reporter from the Mainichi Shimbun Nara Bureau found out at a fire station in the western Japanese city of Higashiosaka.

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Mainichi Shimbun reporter Akiko Hirose is seen in a smoky room at the Higashiosaka City Fire Department’s Disaster Prevention Training Center on January 20, 2022, taking a low stance and using her hands to look for an escape route. If the refugees don’t squat down, they can’t see what’s in front of them. (Mainichi/Takemori Horikawa)

For my visit to the Disaster-Prevention Learning Center of the Higashiosaka City Fire Department, a scenario was envisaged in which a fire breaks out in a room measuring about 20 square meters and smoke (in this case harmless and made of food additives) fills. . Then I had to try to escape by finding the exit down a corridor wide enough for one person, opening four or five doors in the process. I was not informed of the room layout.

At the urging of an officer who was guiding me, I opened the door to enter. The room was already filled with white smoke. I couldn’t see anything or take a single step. My breathing became labored, and even with a mask on, I quickly inhaled a large amount of smoke. The smoke had a slightly sweet odor that made it easy to tell if I had inhaled it.

Looking down at my feet I could faintly see the ground. By crouching down and somehow crawling forward, my vision improved slightly. But my reassurance was short-lived; Suddenly the lights went out and the room was plunged into darkness. It was a power outage. I could feel the sweat on my back.



Opening this door results in a replica of a backdraft, as demonstrated on January 20, 2022 at the Higashiosaka City Fire Department’s Disaster Response Learning Center. (Mainichi/Akiko Hirose)

I felt along the wall until I touched a doorknob. Thinking it might be the exit, I opened it when there was a huge explosion and a red light. It meant large amounts of oxygen had gotten in, causing an explosive ignition known as backdraft. This room was the seat of the fire. My heart pounding deliberately, I paced up and down the corridor.

Looking for the exit, I opened another door. A dead end. I looked up and through the smoke near the ceiling I saw a faint green light – an emergency exit light. I opened the door next to me and kept walking until I reached the exit. Outside, my lungs filled with fresh air, but my throat was still dry from the stress.

Smoke rises up so you have to get down deep to escape. This is the basic rule of evacuation. Hiroyuki Yuba, a firefighter and my guide, said, “Even doors can get hot from the flames.

In my experience, a passage that normally takes about 15 seconds to traverse took up to 1 minute and 10 seconds with the smoke inside. Had it been real smoke, I might have collapsed in the middle. When you can’t see what’s around you, you panic and your breathing becomes disordered, and when you crouch down to move forward, your breathing also speeds up. I also understood that the emergency exit lights installed near the ceiling are harder to see with the smoke.

Dai Iwata, head of the Prevention Promotion Department at the Higashiosaka Fire Department, said, “When entering a building, it is important to know where the stairs and emergency exits are. Think of it as the person who will protect your life. ”



Hiroyuki Yuba explains the importance of confirming where emergency exit lights are located at the Higashiosaka City Fire Department’s Disaster Response Learning Center on January 20, 2022. (Mainichi/Akiko Hirose)

(Japanese original by Akiko Hirose, Sakurai Local Bureau)

Higashiosaka Fire Department Disaster Response Learning Center:

Located in the same building as the Municipal Fire Department and Naka Fire Department, the facility is divided into a Disaster Response Learning Zone and a Disaster Response Experience Zone. In the Disaster Prevention Experience Zone, attendees experience smoke evacuation, early-stage firefighting and 119 calls, earthquakes, and other free experiences. Groups of 10 or more must book in advance. The facility is located in the Inaba district of Higashiosaka. Inquiries can be made at 072-966-9998 (in Japanese).

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