Before you go to bed tonight, make sure your home has working smoke detectors. It’s one of the best things you can do protect yourself from dying in a fire, says the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

Smoke alarms can save lives. The NFPA estimates that 70 percent of home fire deaths in the U.S. occur in homes that don’t have a working smoke detector.

“Having a smoke alarm reduces your risk of dying in a home fire by 50 percent,” says the NFPA in its new report, “U.S. Experience with Smoke Alarms and Other Fire Detection/Alarm Equipment.”

The first step is getting a smoke detector. Most American homes already have at least one. As of 2004, 96 percent of U.S. homes with telephones had at least one smoke detector, says the NFPA.

However, the homes without smoke detectors account for 40 percent of home fires reported to U.S. fire departments, says the NFPA.

If you already have a smoke detector, check that it’s working.

In one in five American homes with at least one smoke detector installed, not a single one was working, one 1992 survey quoted in the report shows. Despite an increase in home smoke detector use, the devices didn’t work in 25 percent of reported fires in homes with them, says the NFPA.

The NFPA also says the percentage of nonworking smoke detectors has “leveled off,” but more improvement is needed.

Smoke Detector Battery Check

Most often, the problem is dead, missing, or disconnected batteries.

Some people deliberately remove or disconnect the batteries to avoid “nuisance” activations, says the NFPA. In other cases, forgetfulness may let too much time go by between changing the batteries.

Batteries for conventional smoke detectors should be replaced according to the manufacturer’s guidelines, which is typically “at least once every year,” says the NFPA.

With the winter holidays coming, it’s especially timely to check smoke detectors. Some of the season’s coziest customs — lit fireplaces and candles, decorations, and holiday cooking — can be fire hazards.

For instance, December is the worst month for candle fires. Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, and Christmas Eve are the three worst days of the year for candle fires, according to a recent NFPA report.

Taking Precautions

The NFPA offers these fire safety tips:

—Choose smoke detectors bearing the label of a recognized testing laboratory.

—Install smoke detectors on every level of the home and outside all sleeping areas. For added safety, install smoke detectors in every room where people sleep.

—Consider hiring an electrician to install hard-wired, interconnected alarms, which all sound together and have a power source that’s usually more reliable.

—Install a new battery in conventional smoke detectors at least once a year. Immediately replace batteries if the alarm “chirps,” signaling a low battery.

—Replace smoke detectors with extended-life batteries when they die. The batteries in these units can’t be replaced.

—Replace all smoke detectors when they are 10 years old.

—Test smoke detectors monthly.

—Install special strobe light smoke detectors for people with hearing problems.

—Be prepared. Have a plan ready to get everyone out of the house quickly if a fire occurs.

—Practice your plan. Make sure everyone can hear the smoke detector and knows what to do.

—Get out immediately, if a fire occurs. Stay low on your way out of the home to avoid smoke.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: National Fire Protection Association, “U.S. Experience With Smoke Alarms and Other Fire Detection/Alarm Equipment,” November 2004. WebMD Medical News: “Candles Cause More Home Fires.” News release, National Fire Protection Association.