Know the drill: How you can prepare for fire dangers at home

Just like a smoke alarm, a fire safety plan can be a lifesaving tool if your house catches on fire. Problem is, most Americans haven't created such a plan, putting them at greater risk of injury or death if their homes go up in flames.

An April 2011 survey by Liberty Mutual Insurance found that 28 percent of American parents with children under age 12 living at home have practiced a family fire drill, and only about one of every four American families has created or discussed a fire safety plan.

Based on the survey results, most Americans who have young children at home are living without a fire safety net.

Only about one of every four American families has created or discussed a fire safety plan.

“With a well thought out plan and multiple escape options, your chances of survival greatly increase,” according to a September report on U.S. residential fire deaths from the U.S. Fire Administration. The federal agency "recommends leaving fighting a fire to trained firefighters. Instead, efforts should be focused on following a preset escape plan.”

Home fire: Time is precious

Tom Harned, a property risk field manager for Liberty Mutual who also is a volunteer firefighter, says most people estimate they’ll have 10 or 15 minutes to safely exit the house from the time a smoke alarm warns them. In reality, Harned says, a residential room can go from a few wisps of smoke to solid floor-to-ceiling flames in as little as three minutes. Also, he notes, a smoke alarm may be delayed 60 to 90 seconds from the time the smoke first appears to the time the alarm goes off.

“When a fire starts, it can move extremely fast,” Harned says.

Lorraine Carli, vice president of communications for the nonprofit National Fire Protection Association, says the time available to escape a burning home has dropped by as much as 80 percent in recent years. The reason, she says, is that the number and quantity of synthetic materials in homes has increased, reducing the time it takes for a room to reach a completely engulfed “flashover” state.

“Those things tend to burn quicker and hotter, so things go to flashover faster,” Carli says. “That’s the big reason behind having an escape plan and practicing. You’re only going to have a matter of minutes, so you want to know exactly what do to.”

Liberty Mutual offers tips for creating a fire safety plan at befiresmart.com. The National Fire Protection Association has similar resources at firepreventionweek.org.

Assembling a fire safety plan

Carli says a fire safety plan should include a floor plan for your entire home and two escape routes for each room. Having dual escape routes -- one of which may be a window -- gives residents another option in case one route is blocked by smoke or flame.

In addition to creating a floor plan and safety routes, experts suggest designating an assembly point a safe distance away from the home. There, family members can gather to count heads to see who escaped and who still may be inside.

Once the plan is created, families should practice it twice a year, Carli says.

“It takes a small amount of time to develop a plan and actually practice it,” she says. “The benefit is you could save your family’s life.”

Experts say that producing a fire safety plan and holding household fire drills can boost your odds of surviving a blaze. However, no studies have documented how much those odds can be improved.

Home insurance implications

Home insurance companies do not offer reduced premiums for policyholders who've created and practiced fire safety plans, says Loretta Worters, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute. Discounts are, however, often available for homeowners who install smoke alarms and sprinkler systems.

Worters says a fire safety plan "may help to get you out alive, but from a property perspective, that doesn’t address the losses there could be in a home or business because of a fire."

The death toll

The U.S. Fire Administration estimated that 2,630 civilian fire deaths occurred each year from 2007 to 2009. A study by the National Fire Protection Association found that U.S. residential fire deaths declined nearly 67 percent from 1979 to 2007, mostly thanks to stepped-up requirements for installation of smoke alarms, Harned says. Fire safety plans also may be catching on.

Harned says a 1994 study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 10 percent of U.S. households had developed and practiced a fire escape plan. A 1997 survey by the National Fire Protection Association came up with a figure of 16 percent. But by 2007, another association survey indicated 28 percent of Americans had put in place fire safety plans and drills.

“Without having a good plan in place, you’re not going to be effective in having an escape,” Liberty Mutual's Harned says.

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