As we sprang forward yesterday into daylight-saving time, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reminded us to check our smoke alarms and their batteries. But it's also a good time to devise a family fire escape plan - after all, the alarms don't do much good if you your family doesn't know what to do once they sound.

Fire is the second leading cause of unintentional death in the home. Each year, nearly 3,200 people die in residential fires, and there are more than 390,000 residential fires serious enough to be reported to fire departments, according to the CPSC.

About 90 percent of U.S. households have smoke alarms installed. However, a CPSC survey found that the smoke alarms in 20 percent of those households -- about 16 million -- were not working, most of those because the battery was dead or missing.

But when they are working, an escape plan is vital. In many cases, children are the source of the plan as schools across the country have programs in conjunction with local fire departments in which children are asked to help their family develop a plan.

The National Fire Protection Association shares dozens of success stories like this one from Lynwood, Ill., where six-year-old Breana Spriggs' grandmother mistakenly put an electric coffeepot on the stove.

The kitchen filled with thick black smoke, triggering the smoke alarm. Breana alerted the family as soon as she heard the smoke alarm. The family calmly exited the home and went to their outside meeting place where Breana's older sister called the fire department from her cell phone.

As part of the Third District of Illinois Great Escape Project, Lt. Jeff Hinkens from the Lynwood Fire Department had visited Breana's first grade class at the Nathan Hale Elementary School. Breana brought home a "Great Escape" planning grid and persuaded her family to develop and practice an escape plan. Breana told one of the firefighters at the scene, "Tell firefighter Jeff I did what he said."

The NFPA says only 25 percent of families have actually developed and practiced a home fire escape plan. If a smoke alarm went off in the middle of the night, only 39 percent of people surveyed said they would leave the house immediately. Some 56 percent would poke around to find the source of the alarm.

The NFPA offers the following tips for devising an escape plan:

  • Draw a floor plan of your house. Show two ways out of each room, including windows. Mark the location of each smoke alarm.
  • Test all your smoke alarms each month to make sure they are functioning.
  • Make sure every family member understands the plan.
  • If your windows or doors have security bars, make sure they have quick-release mechanisms on the inside so you can open them quickly in an emergency.
  • Practice your escape plan every six months. Practice several times during the day, then have a fire drill in the middle of the night.
  • Determine an outdoor meeting place. Get out of your house first, then call for help.
  • If you live in an apartment, make sure you're familiar with the building's evacuation plan. Use the stairs, not the elevator, if fire strikes.
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