The United States has one of the highest fire death and injury rates in the world. The majority of reported fires in buildings occur in homes.

Nationally, the most common causes of residential fires are cooking, and heating equipment. Whether in the form of flames or smoke, fire is the third leading cause of deaths occurring in the home. Severe burns are among the most devastating injuries because of their lasting physical and emotional scars. Children and older adults are at higher risk for this due to their thinner skins, often sustaining more serious burns at lower temperatures. In addition to the human suffering caused by these injuries, they involve a large financial cost. The National SAFE KIDS Campaign reports that the annual cost of fire-related burn deaths alone among children ages 14 and under is $1.2 billion. Children ages 4 and under account for more than $550 million of these costs.

According to the Minnesota State Fire Marshal Division, in 2003, 76 percent of civilian (non-firefighter) fire deaths in our state occurred in the home. Consider these suggestions to help reduce your fire risk.

Every dollar spent on smoke alarms saves this country $21. Buy and install smoke detectors, preferably for each level of your home. The chances of dying in a fire are cut in half with the presence of a working smoke detector. Place a smoke detector outside each sleeping area. For added safety, install smoke alarms in every room where people sleep. Sleepers are at greater risk of perishing in a fire because smoke and toxic gases can put them into a deeper sleep and eventually kill them.

There are two types of smoke alarms. The ionization detector is the most commonly used and senses fast flaming fires. The photoelectric detector senses smoldering fires and will not give nuisance alarms from cooking. Some smoke alarms are now combination alarms using both technologies and have a hush button to silence nuisance alarms.

Test your detectors on a monthly basis (battery-operated and hard-wired) and change batteries twice a year (including hard-wired detectors with battery back-up). Make changing batteries an annual habit by centering it around specific holidays or birthdays or at the spring and fall time changes. Consider purchasing ten-year lithium batteries for your detectors, and continue to test your detector monthly. However, remember that the detectors themselves have a lifespan of less than ten years and must be periodically replaced (including hard-wired detectors). A smoke detector is only effective if it is properly maintained.

Consider installing a residential fire sprinkler system in your home. With working smoke alarms and a sprinkler system, you increase your chance of survival to approximately 73 percent. A single sprinkler head will activate when the temperature reaches 155 degrees, which is usually 1-2 minutes after a fire starts.

Keep a fire extinguisher handy, especially in the kitchen, and learn how to use it. Store your kitchen extinguisher in a convenient spot, but not over the stove - most kitchen fires occur there.

The majority of kitchen fires occur when food is left unattended. Don't use water to extinguish a grease fire - this will only spread the fire. Approach a small grease fire with a properly rated extinguisher. If an extinguisher is not available, hold a pan lid (in a hand protected with an oven mitt) vertically to shield yourself from the smoke and flames and turn the burner off. Then move the lid toward the pan and ease the lid over the fire. Do not attempt to bring the lid up over the fire and then straight down. Once the lid is on and oxygen is cut off, the fire will extinguish itself.

Always keep matches and lighters out of sight and reach of children. Store them in a high, locked cabinet or container. Stress that matches and lighters are only for adults to use. Avoid referring to their use as "playing with matches" because children often do not associate experimenting with matches or lighters as "play."

Be aware that defective appliances and overloaded circuits are major causes of home fires. Make sure that all power cords are in proper working order; replace any damaged power cord immediately. Avoid overloading electrical outlets with too many appliances. Extension cords and outlets can become overheated due to overuse and cause fires. Check the temperature of the cords while in use. If they are hot to the touch, disconnect the appliance.

Space heaters or fuel-burning heaters should be placed away from any combustible materials and out of heavy traffic areas. Any heat-producing appliances or lighting devices, such as lamps or nightlights, should be placed away from curtains or other flammable materials.

Store all flammable liquids such as gasoline and propane outside of the home.

Plan and conduct home fire drills. It is important to have at least two escape routes out of every room in the house or apartment in case one is blocked by fire. If you live in an apartment building, remember that the elevators are usually shut down by power failures during emergencies or reserved for use by fire officials. Note the exact location of stairways and any fire doors. Make sure that windows designated as fire exits haven't been painted shut and that doors can be unlocked easily. Keep furniture or other heavy objects out of the way of doors and windows. Designate a specific outside meeting place. Involve the entire family, especially children. Young children will instinctively hide and are often trapped under their beds or in closets. Every member of the family, especially children, should know the following steps to take in case of fire:

1. Crawl low under smoke and cover mouth and nose with a piece of cloth. An estimated three-fourths of all fire victims die from smoke inhalation and lack of oxygen.

2. Touch closed doors with the back of your hand to feel the temperature before opening them.

3. Get out of the house as quickly as possible. Don't stop to try to save valuables.

4. Never return to a burning house.

5. Call 9-1-1 after you've left a burning building, not from inside.

6. If clothes catch on fire, "stop, drop and roll" to extinguish the flames.