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Fire Alarm

Kids and fire don't mix. In fact, it's the leading cause of death in children. All the more reason to teach little ones to avoid tragedy.


We live in a flammable world. So it's always important to review the steps parents and kids can take to protect themselves and others against fire.

"Children and fire are a deadly combination," said Meri-K Appy, assistant vice president for public education at the National Fire Prevention Assn. in Quincy, Mass. Not only is fire the leading cause of death in the home for children, a large number of victims--perhaps as many as one-third--die in fires set by themselves or other young children.

That means one of the most important measures families can take is to make sure children don't have the opportunity or the means to start fires.

"When you're talking about a preschooler, the motivation for playing with fire could be simple curiosity," Appy said. "So one of the first things you teach is to stay away from heat, from flame. And we want children to learn that they should tell a grown-up if they see a lighter or matches."

Kids can understand fundamental fire-safety practices at a remarkably young age, Appy said. "Very little kids need to develop a concept of what's hot, what could get hot and what's not hot." And that's needed as soon as a baby begins cruising the kitchen.

In the preschool years, Appy said, kids are ready for the association's Learn Not to Burn, an educational program targeting children from preschool to third grade. Games, slogans, an animated fire dog named Sparky and other kid-friendly approaches teach children that fire is no toy.

One of the program's most important tenets is that it's an adult's job to keep kids away from any source of fire. Instead of teaching children to give an adult that lighter or match, Appy noted, Learn Not to Burn's message is that a child shouldn't even touch a fire-starting tool.

Young children also are taught the best responses to use when a fire does appear. At 3 or 4, children will enjoy making a game of learning the stop-drop-and-roll maneuver that should be used if their clothing catches on fire. Creating pretend smoke by holding a sheet a couple of feet above the floor and having a child practice crawling under the "smoke" is also good training for a fast response to fire.

Like a number of other public health issues--seat belts, smoking--fire safety rests on ideas and actions simple enough for kids to comprehend and bring home. "If you do it well, it's interesting and really fun for kids to learn about fire," Appy said.

"The best goal is to teach children and their families about fire," she said. "So it's an important family activity to plan escape routes and what to do in case of fire. During a fire choices have to be made instantaneously. Who helps whom? Which window do people use? Who calls the fire department? Where do you meet outside the building?"

Working out answers to these questions may seem like a grim exercise, but not doing it could be worse, Appy said. "Looking back--when you've needed this preparation and haven't had it--is grim," she said. "Looking ahead, planning and practicing--that's smart. That's preparation you hope never comes into practice, but if it's needed, it's in place."

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