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Life Skill #4: Planning a fire escape

What homeowners can do to ensure the safety of their families and reduce risks in the event of a fire.

By William Hageman, Tribune Newspapers

3:26 PM EDT, July 9, 2013

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The National Fire Protection Association (nfpa.org) in its annual survey of home structure fires, recently reported that U.S. fire departments responded to an average of 1,000 house fires a day in the years from 2007 to 2011. Over that span, there was an average of 2,570 civilian fire deaths and 13,210 injuries a year. Although the numbers have improved over the last 30 years, there's still plenty that homeowners can do to ensure the safety of their families and reduce risks.

Smoke alarms and an escape plan are the two best ways to protect lives, says Judy Comoletti, the NFPA's division manager of public education. Here are her tips.

Degree of difficulty: Medium, because it varies: Planning is easy. Escaping may not be.

Smoke alarms: For best results, smoke alarms should be on every level of a home, including the basement. They should be located in each bedroom and outside each sleeping area (in a hallway, for example). Comoletti suggests interconnected alarms, either hard-wired by an electrician or wireless. That way, if there's a fire anywhere in the home, all the alarms go off.

It's also key to make sure they are in working order. Check at least twice a year.

Develop a plan: Gather the entire family and draw up an escape plan:

Whether you're a family of one or 12, check escape routes. Go room to room and find two ways out: two doors or door and window.

Make sure doors are unobstructed and windows aren't painted or nailed shut or have security bars, Comoletti says.

Is there a toddler in the home? Assign a person to make sure the child is safe in the event of a fire.

Set up a location outside the house where everyone should meet — the mailbox at the end of the driveway, a certain tree, a neighbor's porch. It should be toward the front of the property. Once everyone knows how to get out and where to go, practice twice a year.

If fire strikes: Your first priority: Get out and call 9-1-1 as quickly as possible.

Don't try fighting the fire yourself with an extinguisher. They're made for small, localized fires — a waste basket, for example. If you try to fight a house fire with one, you will be overmatched. Find an exit.

Once you're out, stay out. Don't go back for papers or pets — if you're on the way out and can grab the pet, do it. Otherwise, stay out. Cats and dogs are usually pretty good at escaping fires.

Perhaps even more difficult is the advice to not go back in for other family members. "Let the fire department know if someone is still inside," Comoletti says. "They are trained in search and rescue, they have the right equipment. It's not worth going back in for any reason."

For more than 60 years, the National Fire Protection Association has used its mascot, Sparky the Fire Dog, to educate kids about fire issues. For activities, games and interactive features for all ages, go to sparky.org.

bhageman@tribune.com