02/15/2011 05:22 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Winter Danger That May Surprise You

In the middle of one of the coldest, snowiest and iciest winters in history, the last alarm you'd think our nation's disaster response leadership would be sounding is around fires. Indeed, in the ultimate winter "man bites dog" story, new evidence points to an alarming increase in winter home fires, with young children as the disproportionate victims.

A perfect storm of increased heating costs and record cold weather have forced many families already struggling with the recession to turn to alternative -- and potentially dangerous -- heating sources such as space heaters, fireplaces and even kitchen ovens. These heat sources pose a unique risk to children, particularly the very youngest ones.

Indeed, a new U.S. Fire Administration report released this week reveals that half of all kids who die in house fires are four years old or younger. That figure is up slightly from previous years, sparking the need for greater awareness and action.

FEMA and the National Commission on Children and Disasters, which I chair, are teaming up to get the word out. Starting now at READY.GOV, families can learn how to better protect themselves and their children.

Among the actions every family should take this winter and year round:

  • Establish a 3-foot safety zone around all heat sources, whether it is a fireplace, space heater or oven; use back burners on the stove when cooking if children are around.

  • Talk to children about fire safety. Children accidentally set many of the fires that harm them.
  • Make a family fire plan and practice it. The plan should include identifying two exits from each room and marking an outside meeting place.
  • Ensure each room has smoke detectors, and that batteries are changed twice per year. Carbon Monoxide detectors are also recommended.
  • If there are security bars or locks on doors, make sure all family members know how to release them. All family members should be able to escape from the second floor.
  • The disproportionate effect of home fires on children is not an isolated phenomenon; it's yet another example of a tragic new trend. Over the past decade of unprecedented disasters, we've found a response system unprepared to meet the unique needs of children.

    After Hurricane Katrina, it took six months to reunite every child with their families; only 12 states currently meet minimal standards for protecting kids in schools and child care centers; and 80 percent of ambulances don't even have equipment to meet the unique needs of children.

    The National Commission on Children and Disasters was established to ensure better protections for children and, under the effective and aggressive leadership of Administrator Craig Fugate, FEMA has already implemented groundbreaking new children-specific policies at the federal level.

    From house fires to hurricanes to terror attacks, we need everyone to do their part to protect themselves and the youngest Americans so that future disasters' effects on children are no longer a disaster in their own right.