Most of us consider our homes a refuge, a place we're always safe. Yet, home injuries send 20 million people to the hospital or doctor each year, according to the Home Safety Council. And in 2001 alone, the FBI reports that Americans lost $3.3 billion in property to 2.1 million burglaries. There is good news, though: You can take steps to protect your house -- and yourself -- to make injuries and crime less likely. Here are just a few tips:
Take A Number. Make sure your house number is big and bold (not cute and dainty) and not obscured by landscaping or blowing flags. It helps police and firemen get to you faster.
Trim It Up. Don't hide windows behind shrubbery or trees. That provides the perfect cover for someone trying to break into your home.
Let There Be Light. Exterior lights are a good deterrent against burglars. Motion- or light-sensing mechanisms are a big help. Timers allow indoor lights to come on sporadically throughout your house -- especially when you're out of town.
Put It Away. No matter how safe your neighborhood, don't tempt fate by leaving bicycles, lawn equipment or other valuables outside.
Here's The Key. Put a deadbolt lock on all exterior doors. If you use double-cylinder deadbolts (which require a key for both sides) because of glass near the door handle, make sure you have a key in easy reach so you can get out in case of fire. (Many local zoning codes prohibit double-cylinder locks on any exterior door). Make sure first-floor and basement windows have locks or cannot be forced open.
Lock It Up. Safety expert Robert Siciliano says it's amazing how many people get super-secure locks and alarm systems -- and then forget to use them. Make it a habit to lock your doors even when you're home. Turn your alarm system on before you go to bed. Shut first-floor windows tight when you're sleeping. Screens deter bugs, not burglars, rapists, or kidnappers.
Who's Out There? Never, ever open your door if you don't know who's on the other side. Get a peephole or talk through the door. Ask for identification if it's a repairman. Don't feel awkward about calling the company to verify that he's for real. And don't worry about bad manners by telling a sales person through the door that you're not interested.
Take A Tour. Be sure you know where your main water and gas cut-offs are, as well as your circuit breakers. Few homeowners actually know where these are, but minutes can matter in an emergency.
Avoid Charges. A ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) is part of an electrical outlet that helps protect you from overloaded circuits. If the circuit is stressed, the GFCI instantly shuts off electricity to outlets on that circuit. Because most electrical home accidents happen near water, make sure outlets in bathrooms, kitchens, laundry facilities, near swimming pools and any place outdoors have GFCIs.
Cool Your Jets. The kitchen is the most common place for home fires. Keep a fire extinguisher -- one that works on any kind of fire -- handy. If you don't have one, try to put the lid on the pan to extinguish a flame. If it's in the oven, turn it off. Never throw water on a kitchen fire, especially a grease fire. It will splatter the grease and likely spread the flames.
Sound Your Alarm. Although 97 percent of Americans have smoke alarms, the Home Safety Council reports that only 20 percent test them on a regular basis. Put smoke alarms on every floor of your house, including the basement. Make a note on your calendar to test them -- as simple as pushing the button -- every month, and change the batteries when you adjust the time on your clocks in the fall and spring. Carbon monoxide detectors and radon detectors are important considerations, too.
Map A Route. How would you get outside if your house were on fire? Each family member should know the best escape routes from every room. Consider safety ladders for second floor rooms. If your windows lock, be sure everyone knows how to unlock them quickly.
Get A Grip. Slips and falls are the leading cause of home injury, according to the Home Safety Council, so make sure stairs have hand rails, rugs are non-slip, make sure all porches and stairways are well-lit, exercise caution when using ladders (including step ladders), and use night-lights to illuminate hallways.
Access Denied. Always keep medicines and household cleansers out of reach of children and/or locked up. The same goes for matches, pesticides, and auto and pool chemicals.
Call For Help. 9-1-1 isn't the only number you need to know. Also have on hand the numbers for poison-prevention, doctors, and non-emergency fire and police.
Stay Connected. Burglars often remove a telephone from the receiver when they enter a home. If you're in the master bedroom and hear something, you'll no longer have a way of phoning for help. Consider a second phone line or, better yet, put your cell phone on your nightstand every evening. Be sure, too, that you have at least one non-cordless phone in the house. If the electricity goes out, you'll still be able to make calls.