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home fire safety: get alarmed

Smoke alarms. We know what they look like. We (hopefully) know where they're located in our homes. But the question is: Do we know that they'll work if there's a fire?

According to the Residential Fire Safety Institute, over 92 percent of dwellings in the U.S. have at least one smoke detector. That sounds like an encouraging statistic, but it's estimated that one third of these alarms no longer work. This is because many of us either forget to test our alarms or don't replace dead batteries when we should.

Below are some tips from the U.S. Fire Administration on keeping your home fire safe.

Smoke detector maintenance

  • Replace smoke alarms every decade. After 10 years, they have a 30 percent failure rate.
  • Vacuum alarms at least once a year to remove dust, a big contributor to faulty alarms.
  • Replace batteries every year unless you use the long-life kind.
  • Avoid using long-life batteries in older smoke alarms as they could render them inoperable.
  • Install a mix of both ionization and photoelectric alarms. The ionization detectors activate quicker for fast, flaming fires, while the photoelectric detectors respond faster to slow, smoldering fires.

Smoke alarm location

To ensure that you'll hear the alarm and be able to respond quickly, it's a good idea to locate them:

  • Outside each bedroom area
  • In each bedroom
  • On every level of your home

Though cooking accounts for most home fires, you don't want the alarm going off every time you cook, so make sure it's not too close to the kitchen.

New home fire safety

If you're building a new home, the smoke alarms should be powered by the house's electrical system and have backup batteries. Also, the alarms should be interconnected so if one unit detects smoke, all units will sound.

While building codes today are stricter regarding fire safety, some fire officials think newer homes are more at risk compared to older homes. New homes are typically more insulated, which keeps fire from escaping and causes it to burn faster and hotter. All the more reason to make sure your fire alarms are in working order.

Other fire safety measures

  • Fire sprinklers: To get the facts (and dispel the myths), take a look at the USFA's Residential Sprinkler Systems to learn why they're less troublesome than you may think. Already have sprinklers? Don't use them as a hanging tool or paint them, as the paint will absorb heat, causing a delayed reaction to a fire.
  • Portable extinguishers: You want to place the extinguisher in a spot that will let you escape. Remember, most of us aren't fire experts. While you may be successful in extinguishing a burning pot, putting the fire out on a mattress might be impossible with a small extinguisher. Getting everyone out of the house and calling the fire department should take priority.
  • Windows: To give you and your family room to escape, experts recommend that windows be a minimum of 5.7 square feet. Height should be 24 inches while width needs to be at least 20 inches.
  • Carbon monoxide detectors: Though not a fire safety measure, these little devices can be lifesavers. Check out our insight The silent killer: protect your loved ones and your home for more information.

Smoke alarms, sprinklers, and extinguishers can help protect you and your home. But you need homeowners insurance or renters insurance to cover your assets in the event of a fire. If you rent, your landlord's insurance only covers the structure of the building, not your personal belongings. So make sure you, your family, your home, and all your things are protected.