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'Stand by your pan' to avoid kitchen fires, expert says

By Ruth Underwood
CNN
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CNN -- A pan left unattended on the stove, a forgotten cigarette or a space heater left too close to the drapes -- each is a potential ingredient for one of the more than 380,000 home fires that occur in the United States each year, leading to approximately 3,000 deaths.

The first step in decreasing your risk of injury is prevention, and according to Meri-K Appy, president of the Home Safety Council, a national organization dedicated to preventing accidental home injuries.

With a play on the words of Tammy Wynette, Appy recommends that you "stand by your pan," to prevent the No. 1 cause of home fires: unattended cooking. (Watch tips from fire fighting pros -- 5:30 Video)

Stay close to anything you're cooking on the stovetop, she said. Have a lid for the pan right next to you so you can slide it over the pan if the contents catch fire -- and once the lid is on, don't peek.

The leading cause of fatal fires in the home has consistently been smoking-related.

"If you have a smoker in your home, you have to help that person pay constant attention," Appy said. "Ideally, encourage the person to quit. Among all the health benefits, smoke-free is also fire-safe."

If quitting isn't on the smoker's agenda, she recommends encouraging that person to smoke outside and use a deep, sturdy ashtray, since "cigarette or smoking-related fires tend to involve a lit or smoldering cigarette and upholstered furniture."

If someone is smoking inside the home, again use a deep, sturdy ashtray on a sturdy table and douse butts with water before you throw them away.

That sounds like common sense, but a forgotten cigarette butt can smolder for hours, Appy said. By the time a fire starts, the smoker could be asleep in another room, leaving the fire undiscovered until it is well under way.

Appy also encourages homeowners to take time to have central heating equipment and chimneys serviced every year, This step will help protect you from fire hazards as well as exposure to carbon monoxide.

And she warned to take special care when using portable space heaters. If they're too close to drapes, people or pets, fires or burns may result.

In case of fire

"So let's say that a fire does happen, well now you want to know about it immediately," Appy said. And the early warning from a system of interconnected smoke alarms may give you precious time in a fire.

Interconnected smoke alarms are required in new home construction. They can be installed in an existing home by an electrician, or a wireless alarm system can be easily installed. Appy recommends at least one smoke alarm on every level of a home. Additional smoke alarms should be placed inside bedrooms.

Beyond early warning, it's important to have an escape plan with which all the members of your household are familiar. It should include who will help whom in getting out of the house. Once the plan is in place, you'll want to practice it with your children. Make sure the children know at least two ways to get out of every room.

"You don't have to scare the kids to death, but the idea is that you're going to choose a way out that doesn't have very much smoke," Appy said.

If there are children in the home, Appy recommends keeping an escape ladder in their room, since you'll want to help them get out of the house.

Appy's prescription for the most peace of mind is to have a fire sprinkler system.

"They're very brilliantly designed to activate when the fire is still small," she said.

And, contrary to popular belief, sprinkler systems are activated by heat, rather than smoke, so the smoke from that burnt toast won't mean a soggy mess in your kitchen.

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Unattended cooking is the leading cause of home fires in the Unted States.

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