Here's the Drill

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You're in the middle of a dream about last summer's vacation to Maui. The sun is dipping down, the waves are foamy as you walk across the sand, headed for an lavish luau. You can actually smell the smoke.

FIRE!

You leap out of bed to the blare of smoke detectors and fumble getting the family outside.

It's an experience most of us will never have to live through, but one that plays out every day, or at least every night.

The National Fire Protection Assn. says that most residential fires and deaths occur between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. when most people are asleep and their senses and reaction time dulled.

Experts suggest you review your home's fire safety at least once a year. Here are some areas to consider:

Cooking Dangers

Odds are that if you're going to have a fire in your house, it'll start in the kitchen.

"Cooking is the source of the majority of residential fires," says Capt. Scott Brown of the Orange County Fire Authority. "You might leave something on the stove at a low heat, forget about it and leave the room, and when you return you're dealing with kitchen fire."

The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that 100,000 fires will occur this year as a result of cooking in the kitchen or at the backyard barbecue.

A little common sense beforehand could reduce that number significantly.

Make sure wood and plastic utensils are a good distance from the range.

A clean stove (and oven) is a safe stove. Remove grease and burned food deposits regularly.

If a fire develops in a hot pan, cover it with a lid.

Smoke detectors specifically designed for kitchens are a good addition to any home. A fire extinguisher in an easily accessible place is essential. Make sure your extinguisher is rated for grease and electrical fires.

Outside, keep the barbecue clean and move the plastic barbecue cover away from the heat when cooking. Many barbecues are made with side panels to store food until it's needed. However, when barbecued food is on the dish it can become very hot, and if it's covered with plastic wrap, the plastic can melt.

Always have someone watch the barbecue during warm up, cooking and cool down.

Smoke Out

Smoke detectors are your best defense against being injured by fire--but only if they're functioning.

"If you have a smoke detector in your home, you have a 50% better chance of surviving a fire," says Brown. "Early detection is critical since smoke is what kills most people in a fire."

Look for the UL or Underwriter's Laboratories seal on your smoke detector and change the batteries at least once a year. Many models cannot be closed unless a battery is in place. This prevents you from removing a dead battery, closing the cover and forgetting to replace it.

If your home has hard-wired detectors--which means they're connected to the electrical system--congratulations. You don't have to worry about dead batteries. However, you'll still need to periodically push the check button to make sure they're working.

It's also not a bad idea to add a battery-powered detector in the house in case of a power failure. If your home is monitored by a private security firm, you may be able to have them hook up a detector that will notify the fire department if the alarm goes off.

There's been some controversy over whether ionization or photoelectric detectors work best.

Ionization smoke detectors monitor ions, or electrically charged particles, in the air. If too many smoke particles disturb the atmosphere in the monitoring chamber, the alarm sounds. Photoelectric systems use a beam of light that sets off the alarm when smoke clouds the light source.

"It's our opinion that both are effective," says Brown. "You're better off with either one rather than none at all."

The National Fire Protection Assn. recommends replacing a smoke detector after 10 years. Some brands are available with 10-year lithium batteries making the unit virtually maintenance-free for a decade. Good smoke detectors can be found at hardware or discount stores for $10 to $20.

You can also find detectors that include a safety light that turns on automatically to guide you through a smoky room. Another new product available in many hardware outlets is a smoke detector tester spray. Spray the small aerosol a few inches from the smoke detector and the contents simulate smoke and set off the alarm of a functioning detector.

How many smoke detectors should you have?

The minimum recommended by the National Fire Safety Standard is one per level of the home, as well as one outside and inside each bedroom.

A carbon monoxide detector in the home is also a good safety addition. Usually costing $20 to $40, these will sound an alarm if deadly, colorless, odorless carbon monoxide gas is found.

Put It Out!

Most home fire extinguishers are rated for grease and electrical fires. Keep at least one on each floor as well as the kitchen and garage (another for your car's trunk is a good idea).

Quality fire extinguishers should last at least five years. Some have a gauge that tells you if there's enough pressure inside the tank to propel the contents; others have a pressure valve that you test periodically to see if it's working. Depending on the size and type of extinguisher it is, expect to pay $10 to $35 for a good one.

The best fire extinguisher is something your house doesn't have: "Home fire sprinkler systems are very valuable for keeping fires small until help arrives," says Mike Macy, deputy fire marshal of the Newport Beach Fire Department. "It would help us a great deal if every house had one."

When temperatures reach 135 degrees, a fusible link is triggered and water sprays from the sprinkler head in the ceiling.

Fires are cut down at the source, and the NFPA estimates that sprinklers combined with smoke detectors could reduce the annual death rate from fire by 82%.

The downside is cost.

Retrofitting an existing house with a quality sprinkler system can cost $3,000 to $5,000, depending on its size. For new construction, the cost is about half that. Some insurance companies offer premium discounts on homes equipped with sprinklers.

If you're planning a remodeling project, adding a sprinkler system may be a well-thought addition to your home.

Fire Escape

Planning, planning, planning are the three keys to surviving a fire.

Picture what you would do if you discovered a fire in the kitchen, garage or bedroom.

If it's minor with only a small amount of smoke, call 911 and get the extinguisher. If the smoke is heavy enough to get your eyes wet, get out of the house, make the call and don't go back inside.

Make sure that family members know the escape route and that each room has a working flashlight. If there's too much smoke between you and the exit, crawl on the floor, where smoke is less dense.

For two-story homes, a fire ladder is essential. "This gives you a way out if the stairs are blocked by smoke or heat," says Tabby Cato, public information officer at the Anaheim Fire Department. "Everyone in the home should know how to use it."

After securing it to a windowsill, you roll it down to the ground. Most have spacers that extend the ladder a little from the house to give you room to descend. Select a central gathering area away from the structure where the family can be safe. Emergency fire ladders sell at hardware and home center outlets for $30 to $70.

Outside Hazards

Dead and dry shrubs should be removed from the yard, and trees should be cut back so that there's at least a 10-foot clearance between the branches and the chimney. Keep your chimney and fireplace clean. It doesn't hurt to have a chimney sweep clear out soot and check the spark arrester occasionally. A professional cleaning can cost $75 to $200. It may need to be done annually if your fireplace gets lots of use.

Keep firewood piles neatly stacked and clean year-round.

If your property borders an open area, be aware of the concept of "defensible space."

"This is where we're trying to get people to clear out brush that's 30 to 100 feet from their property," Macy says. "It's a year-round maintenance project, and it gives firefighters room to save their property in case of a brush fire."

Combustible roofs, such as wood shake, are slowly giving way to tile, composition and cement shake. Replacing your wood shake roof not only increases your fire safety, it might also earn a discount on your home insurance premium.

And finally, take a look at your property at night. Imagine what it would be like for fire fighters or paramedics trying to find your house in hurry. Make sure your street number is clearly visible.

For more information contact:

* Orange County Fire Authority: (714) 744-0400;

* National Fire Protection Assn.: (617) 770-3000, Ext. 7275, or visit its Web site at www.nfpa.org

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