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Fire Alarms are Scary - a Child's Perspective

By Sarah Liebetrau - 27th August 2012

Last week, the fire alarm went off in our apartment building. It was incredibly loud and didn't let up. The kids were getting ready to have their bath when it happened. My husband and I looked at each other and took a few moments to register what was happening. An announcement came over the central loudspeakers saying the fire alarm had been activated and that we should wait for further instructions.

I opened the door of the apartment to investigate and could smell smoke faintly in the corridor but couldn't see anything else. The alarm was still blaring and hurting our ears, so we decided to go across the road to the park and wait it out rather than stay in the apartment.

Obviously the children wanted to know what was going on. Calmly, I told them it was the fire alarm and that just to be safe, we were going to go outside for a while until we knew what the situation was. Mr 6 has been growing up so quickly lately, asking increasingly mature questions and showing great resilience. So it surprised me when he became panicked and asked worriedly whether he could put his clothes back on before we left. I assured him he could and helped him get dressed.

I found our passports and put them in my handbag for safekeeping, then we located our house keys and told the children it was time to go. By then Mr 6, who had been asking whether there was a real fire (we didn't know) was crying and screaming, wanting to bring all his toys with him and worrying that everything would get burned up. I found this odd because neither my husband nor I had panicked in the slightest, we hadn't rushed or raised our voices and had simply explained to him what was happening and got ready to leave. I tried to reassure him that even if there was a fire in the building, it was unlikely to be close to us and would be very unlikely to damage any of his toys, but we had to leave just in case. Seeing Mr 6's reaction, Ms 4 started crying too and refused to leave without one particular teddy. We found the teddy and set off.

Once we got outside Mr 6 calmed down a little but was still very upset about the fate of his toys. He had myriad questions about how the fire started, how the alarm was activated, and what the fire brigade were going to do when they got there. Minutes later we heard the blaring of sirens and three fire engines arrived. The firemen calmly went about investigating.

Within half an hour the alarm had been deactivated and the situation had been dealt with, so we went back inside. At bedtime I asked Mr 6 why he had been so upset. He told me that as soon as he heard the word "fire" he thought the floor was going to give way and that we would be swallowed up by a fire immediately. He thought it was going to be an instantaneous burning down of us and all our possessions. I could have put this down to an overactive imagination or too many movies, but I stopped to think about his reaction.

It reminded me of how very young he is and that sometimes we expect things of children based on our own knowledge of how we know things are likely to play out. But children don't have the background to do a proper risk assessment and will often go to the most extreme scenario first. Our son had never heard a fire alarm sound that loudly or that closely. We have never lived in an apartment before. All of this is brand new to him. Rather than scoff at his worries or laugh, I assured him that fire alarms were there to prevent small fires from becoming big fires, so when we hear an alarm we should take notice of it, but we don't need to worry too much because they are the signal that tells the fire brigade to come and help.

The next time the fire alarm went off - which happened to be the next day! - Mr 6 reacted quite differently because it was no longer a new experience for him. I hope that the way I dealt with it and explained things helped him to make more sense of it the second time around. We still listened for instructions and he still asked questions but the initial panic was gone.

It's not as if he has grown up overnight, however. Watching Mickey Mouse Clubhouse on television that same day, he announced, "I think that Mickey Mouse must not be a real guy. Because he just slid down a rainbow and I am pretty sure that's impossible." So the talking mouse was totally plausible until the rainbow-sliding came into it. Growing up is a process, and I'm glad he's not anywhere near finished yet. I just have to remind myself of that sometimes when I see his big-boy teeth and his man-child gangly frame and wonder why he is reacting to something in such a dramatic way.

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