Forty-eight people died from fires in New York City last year, the fewest at any point in more than a century, according to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. The decline was attributed, by officials, to a combination of initiatives undertaken by the local fire department, including improved response times, fire safety inspections, a program which hands out smoke alarms and the expansion of fire education programs.

The National Fire Protection Association reports 1,392 home fire deaths in the U.S. since January. In 2015, there were 1,345,500 fires reported; 501,500 were structure fires, causing 2,685 civilian deaths, 13,000 civilian injuries and $10.3 billion in property damage.

There are three leading causes of home fire deaths nationally: smoking, electrical malfunction and cooking. Investigators note that these fires are most frequently found in homes which have non-working smoke detectors and/or are missing smoke detectors. Three of every five home fire deaths resulted from fires in homes with no smoke alarms (38 percent) or no working smoke alarms (21 percent).

In fires where smoke detectors were present, but did not operate, nearly half were found to have missing or disconnected batteries. Dead batteries attributed to nearly 25 percent of smoke alarm failures. Working smoke detectors continue to be the leading consumer safety mechanism against home fires — aside from sprinkler systems, which are 99 percent effective when coupled with smoke detectors.

Batteries should never be removed from smoke detectors. Smoke alarms provide an early warning of a fire, giving people additional escape time. Smoke detectors should be installed in every sleeping room and outside each separate sleeping area. Smoke alarms should be installed on every level of a home regardless of whether sleeping areas exist.

Batteries should be tested monthly and replaced annually. Additionally, the entire smoke detector should be replaced every 10 years. Today is a great day to test your alarms and to review important fire safety tips with your family, including how to properly use portable fire extinguishers. Additionally, every household should have a home fire escape plan.

Every home and living space should have a working fire extinguisher. The type of fire extinguisher you use should match the type of fire. For example, an electrical fire would require a different type of extinguishing agent than a grease fire. Most extinguishers display symbols to show the kind of fire on which they can be used.

If you don't think you would be able to safely put out the fire in five seconds using an extinguisher, do not attempt to use it! Leave the area and call 911.

Should you need to use a fire extinguisher, follow the PASS method:

Pull the pin to break the tamper seal.
Aim low, pointing the extinguisher nozzle, horn or nose at the base of the fire.
Squeeze the handle to release the extinguishing agent.
Sweep from side to side at the base of the fire until it appears to be out.

Your best defense in preventing home fire deaths is to test home smoke alarms monthly, replace batteries annually and keep an extinguisher on hand just in case. Don’t let a preventable home fire happen to you. Learn more, visit us on the web:

— Terri Eubanks is Ashland Fire & Rescue's community preparedness coordinator.