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A small investment in safety

AS holiday gifts, humble household smoke detectors may lack the romance of a strand of pearls or a silk dressing gown. But anyone looking for an inexpensive, practical way to say ``Merry Christmas'' to a whole household could do worse than to choose one of these helpful little devices.

And anyone on a really tight budget might think of new batteries for detectors already installed.

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Federal officials estimate that some 30 percent of all households in the United States lack smoke detectors, and of detectors currently installed, somewhere between 30 and 50 percent lack adequately charged batteries or are otherwise disabled.

As a result, the rate of fire deaths in the United States, down from about 10,000 annually in 1974, may be going back up. As is so often the case, those most at risk are the old and the very young, particularly in inner-city and rural neighborhoods. The property damage involved adds up into the billions, with insurance repercussions everyone pays for.

The US Fire Administration is working with groups like the American Association of Retired Persons and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to encourage use of detectors, and at the holiday season some retailers have offered special promotions: Pick up a detector - or get one free - when you're in the store to buy your Christmas tree stand or other holiday supplies, the pitch goes.

The recommendation is for one smoke detector on each level of a dwelling. Judicious placement of the devices and appropriate adjustments of their sensitivity will help protect against false alarms and so eliminate the temptation to disable them and then neglect to restore them to working order. Alertness on this matter is but part of the prudence needed for household fire safety in general.

Smoke detectors can be a good way to make Christmas and the new year not only merry and happy, respectively, but safe.

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