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When it comes to fire safety, the United States is advanced and backward at the same time: advanced in technical knowledge and its firefighting capabilities, backward in its cultural inability to take the threat of fire seriously. The US and Canada have had the highest fire death rates per capita in the world for at least the last 20 years, according to TriData Corporation of Arlington, Va., a leading compiler of fire statistics.

Many Americans take the consumer approach to protection, buying fire extinguishers and smoke detectors. Even so, neglected equipment is not uncommon.

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Public buildings, in particular, are required to be fire-safe. Private homes must meet certain standards, too, but when they catch fire, they are often consumed rapidly.

``The time [available] to escape has gotten shorter over the years,'' says TriData president Philip Schaenman. The reason: lower ceilings and smaller rooms, factors which accelerate flashover - the point at which everything in a room suddenly ignites.

In a typical room built in recent years, flashover often occurs two to four minutes into a fire, rather than five to seven minutes as before. ``The terrible implication of that is that the best fire departments usually can't get to your house in less than three or four minutes in a city,'' Mr. Schaenman says.

Unless fires are detected when very small, amateur attempts at extinguishing them are considered foolhardy. It's best simply to evacuate.

Widespread use of smoke detectors has been a welcome development in the fire-safety field. The next breakthrough could occur if residential sprinkler systems, required in certain communities, are installed in more homes. Faster-acting sprinklers, which require less water to extinguish fires, can now be used without plumbing modifications.

``Having residential sprinklers could probably eliminate 90 percent or better of the [US fire] deaths,'' Schaenman says.

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