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Nobody knows exactly why, but after generally declining throughout this century, the number of civilian (non-firefighter) fire deaths in 1996 increased for the second consecutive year, according to the nonprofit National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Their report also shows that the number of fire deaths in the home, which accounted for approximately 81% of all U.S. fire fatalities, rose nearly 11%.

Fire death rates have fallen from about 6,000 deaths a year for most of the 1980s to roughly 4,700 deaths a year for this decade. Then in 1996 the fire death toll climbed to 4,990. Even before that Americans had the highest fire death rate in the Industrialized world outside the Soviet bloc.

"Sadly, fire is not a serious concern for most Americans, and as long as that attitude persists, so will the thousands of fire deaths that occur in this country each year," says Meri-K Appy, NFPA's vice president for public education.

Property damage from fire also increased. In 1996, fire departments responded to 1,975,000 fires, roughly the same number as the year before, but the total of $9.4 billion in property damage was 5.5% more than the total in 1995. Residential properties incurred an estimated $4.9 billion in property loss, up a statistically significant 13.7%, while approximately $4.1 billion in property damage occurred in one- and two-family dwellings, also a considerable 14.0% increase over the previous year.

NFPA recommends a number of strategies to reduce the fire death toll. These include more widespread public fire safety and prevention education; increased use, testing and maintenance of smoke detectors; practicing and developing home escape plans; much greater use of residential fire sprinkler systems; creation of more fire-safe home products; and increased attention to the needs of high-risk groups, such as the young, older adults and low-income communities.

NFPA also drew special attention to the need for fire safety refreshers for children heading away from home to boarding schools and college housing. "One of the most important things to teach young children is to assume fire alarms are real and to react fast when they occur. In a positive, non-threatening way, help children understand that fire grows and spreads quickly and is too dangerous not to take seriously," says Ms. Appy.

For older children who are going to college and will be living in campus or Greek housing, the NFPA has more extensive advice. "This is especially important for kids who are going away from home their first year. If they are living in independent housing, many of them will be using cooking and heating equipment for the first time. For students who smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol, combining these habits with an unsupervised environment can be a deadly mix." According to NFPA, improperly discarded smoking materials is the leading cause of fire deaths in the U.S., and cooking equipment is the number one cause of home fires.

"For older students who are experiencing a new-found independence, fire safety basics are a necessity," Ms. Appy continues. "We know college students are going to entertain friends. Rather than discourage them from partying, we are trying to encourage them to have someone in the house take responsibility when there's a party - a 'designated dweller' who will stay sober, keeping watch over guests and other roommates."

NFPA offers the following recommendations for students of any age staying in school housing:

* Make sure your housing is protected by building-wide fire detection and alarm systems.

* Learn the sound of the alarm system and take it seriously if you hear it. Your number-one priority in a fire is to get out safely. NFPA also recommends the installation of automatic fire sprinkler systems, which control fire in its early stages.

* Every residence should practice a fire drill at least twice a year. Identify two ways out of each room and make sure everyone knows the emergency number for the fire department.

* For sleeping areas on the second or third floor of a house, consider purchasing fire escape ladders. Learn how to deploy and use the ladder before you have a fire.

* React fast to fire. If the fire alarm sounds, don't investigate. Get out and stay out. Don't use elevators. If your primary exit is blocked by smoke or flames, turn back and use your secondary exit. If you must escape through smoke, crawl low under it, keeping your head about 12-24 inches above the floor.

For older students who will be staying in Greek housing or on their own in off-campus apartments, NFPA recommends this additional fire safety advice:

* Have a "designated dweller" when you host a party. Make sure someone stays sober and responsible, keeping watch over guests and other roommates.

* Smoking materials kill more people than any other fire cause. Make sure you have plenty of large, deep ashtrays and check them often. Soak butts with water before discarding or flush them down the toilet. Check under and around cushions and upholstery before leaving home or going to sleep, especially after a party.

* Keep an eye on what's cooking. Remember to stay with the stove when you're cooking and learn how to smother a small pan fire with a lid. Keep combustibles well away from the stovetop at all times.

* Remember that space heaters need space‹at least three feet. Keep anything that can burn well away from all heaters and turn them off before going to sleep or leaving the room.

* Don't use space heaters to dry clothing.

* Use caution with electrical appliances and avoid over-loading outlets. Many appliances, including TVs and stereos, produce heat and need clearance for air circulation.

* Use a lamp shade, not a scarf! Light bulbs can get very hot, hot enough to cause a fire if fabric or any other combustible comes in contact with them. Use colored light bulbs for mood lighting rather than draping scarves or other fabric over lampshades.

* Remember to extinguish candles before leaving the room and place them well away from anything combustible. Always use a candle holder and blow out the candle before it burns down to the bottom.

* Use caution with common household products that are flammable, such as nail polish and polish removers, air-care products, etc. Keep these products away from heat and flame and don't smoke when using them.

Although not addressed by NFPA, many schools have banned the use of halogen floor lamps in student housing. Halogen lamps are popular with college students because of their low cost and high intensity light. Unfortunately, a 500-watt halogen bulb heats up to 1,200 degrees F, and can quickly set ablaze any clothing or drapes that come in contact. In August 1997 the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued its largest recall order ever covering some 40 million halogen floor lamps. NFPA can be reached at at 617-984-7275, or on the Internet at:



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