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Most children don't know how to get out of a burning house

Fire departments across the country respond to 911 calls every 23 seconds to put out home fires that take the lives of thousands each year. Yet according to a new survey by Liberty Mutual Insurance and the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), fewer than half (46 percent) of U.S. parents report they have ever practiced a home fire drill with their kids.

That's scary, considering more than 3,000 people die annually in structure fires in North America. And worse, more than half of the parents surveyed said they've developed a fire escape plan but, among that group, one in four has never practiced it.

Fire is also the No. 1 cause of home insurance claims.

"Families should have a plan for getting out of their house or apartment in the event of a fire. They should plan for two ways out in the event one path is blocked, and they should draw up a plan on paper and then practice it," says Richard J. Keyworth, an instructor in the Fire Science and Emergency Management Program at Harper College in Palatine, Ill., and author of "FIRES…Accidental or Arson?"

Make a fire escape planIt can take only 30 seconds for a flame to become a major fire and two minutes from the time a smoke alarm sounds until your primary escape route is impassable. Keyworth says kitchen cooking fires and unattended candles are top culprits.

"Because a house filled with smoke can frighten and disorient family members, it is critical to have an emergency plan that everyone in the family understands," says Debra Holtzman, a national child-safety expert and author of "The Safe Baby: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Home Safety and Healthy Living."

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"Practice your escape route with all family members at least twice a year," she advises.

"As your child grows and understands more, you will need to update your family escape plan," says Holtzman.

Because the most deadly fires occur at night, it's a good idea to conduct fire drills after dark. Sound the smoke alarm as part of the practice session. If you live in an apartment, become familiar with the building's evacuation plan and take stairs, not the elevator.

Designate a fixed place outside the home -- such as a lamppost, tree or mailbox -- where family members will meet.

The survey found that 84 percent of children who practice their escape plan are confident they can get out of any room in their home during a fire, and 90 percent know how to get to the family meeting spot outside the home.

"Practice doesn't just make perfect; it can mean the difference between life and death," says Tom Harned, fire-safety expert with Liberty Mutual Insurance and the chief fire officer in Gilbertsville, Pa.

More fire-safety plans

  • Purchase two or three multipurpose fire extinguishers. Install them in the kitchen, the basement and any workshop areas, like the garage. Learn how to oper­ate them before an emergency strikes. Use the extinguish­er only for small, confined fires. While you extinguish a small fire, have family members exit the home and call 911.
  • Install smoke detectors. Detectors should be placed on every floor of the home, including the basement and outside sleeping areas. Test monthly and change batteries twice yearly in spring and fall when the time changes. Replace units every 10 years. "Smoke alarms can cut your family's chance of dying in a fire by nearly half," says Holtzman.
  • Consider drop ladders from second-story bedrooms. Make sure ladders support the heaviest person in the home. Learn the manufacturer's instructions on how to safely install and use the ladder. Practice climbing out on the ladder from a ground-floor window.
  • Invest in battery-operated carbon monoxide alarms. Install a carbon monoxide alarm outside bedrooms and at least 15 feet from any fuel-burning appliance.
  • Make a pet plan. Families need a plan for pets in the event of a fire, such as designating one parent who will be responsible for getting a dog or cat out, if possible. Your pet may be stressed, so know its hiding places.
  • Practice, practice, practice.

What to teach kids

  • Get out fast and stay out.
  • Never hide or go back into the house for any reason.
  • Stop, drop and roll if clothes catch fire.
  • Feel a door with the back of your hand before opening it, If it is hot, use another exit.
  • Crawl on hands and knees under smoke, where air is safer to breathe, and get out.

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