On Nov. 1, fire ripped through a multi-unit apartment building in Portland, claiming six lives. Weeks earlier, two young men died in a Biddeford fire. Northern Maine suffered its own tragedy in mid-month, as four people, including three children, died in a fire in Caribou.

In the past three months, our state has seen 13 fire-related deaths, a staggering number. The fire victims in Biddeford, Portland and Caribou were all younger than 30. The deaths leave their family, friends and community shocked, numb and searching for answers.

Fire-related deaths and injuries are near record levels this year, despite technology that could have prevented these needless casualties.

It’s time to change that.

The American Red Cross, State Fire Marshal’s Office and local fire departments are joining forces on a nationwide initiative that aims to reduce fire-related deaths and injuries by 25 percent over the next five years.

What can everyday Mainers do? First, make sure they have working smoke alarms in their homes. Simply put, smoke alarms save lives. Odds of surviving a fire increase 50 percent if the home has a working smoke alarm.

A recent fire in Augusta caused significant damage to a multi-unit apartment building and drove 27 people from their homes. Working detectors and well-maintained exits allowed occupants to escape from the fire in the early stages, resulting in no deaths or injuries.

Far too often, we learn about missing or disabled alarms at scenes of fatal fires. Perhaps a cooking fire set off an alarm, and the tenant removed the battery to silence it. Or the alarm was disconnected while a room was being painted. We’ve even heard about parents taking a smoke alarm battery to use in one of their child’s toys.

Smoke alarms are a critical piece of a home safety effort. Alarms should be installed on each floor, outside sleeping areas and inside each bedroom. It’s important to test alarms monthly and vacuum them regularly to keep them free of dust. Homes also should have a carbon monoxide alarm on each floor and outside sleeping areas to protect inhabitants from this deadly gas.

Smoke alarms have a lifespan of 10 years and should be replaced if they are older than that. Newer models have 10-year batteries to cover the life of the alarm, although it still should be tested monthly.

While smoke alarms alert families to impending danger, an emergency escape plan will help people get out should fire start. Every household should develop and practice an emergency escape plan that includes every family member, especially children. If children are involved in the planning phase, they’ll be more likely to support the plan and might even have fun doing the drills.

A family escape plan helps ensure that everyone knows what to do in a fire, when time is at a premium.

The plan should include two ways of escape from each room and identify a location in the neighborhood for family members to meet. It’s also a good idea to pick a meeting place away from your neighborhood, should something prevent you from returning to it. A relative’s or friend’s home is ideal.

A Red Cross survey highlighted the importance of installing smoke alarms and practicing escape plans. It found that Americans greatly overestimate how much time they have to escape a fire. A staggering 62 percent said five minutes, while 18 percent thought 10 minutes. Realistically, people have about two minutes to escape a burning house. That’s not much time. The early warning of a smoke alarm, combined with a pre-determined escape route, can mean the difference between life and death.

Alarms and family escape plans are particularly critical as we approach the holidays and cold weather. The most common types of fires are cooking- and heating-related, so this is an especially important time to take extra precautions.

If the unexpected happens, and your home catches fire, you may have only one chance to get out. As Ben Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” so please take a few minutes to check or install smoke alarms and practice an escape plan.

We hope you’ll never experience a home fire, but if you do, we want you to get out quickly and safely.

Joseph Thomas is the state fire marshal. Patricia Murtagh is CEO of the American Red Cross in Maine.

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