It’s every parent’s worst nightmare: a fire that starts at home. It’s so scary, in fact, that many of us avoid talking or even thinking about it.

Firefighters often come to schools to talk to kids, but they rarely get the chance to interact with parents and let them know how to keep a family safe. The number one priority? Install smoke detectors throughout your house and make sure they’re working. Appoint your kids official “smoke detector assistants” and have them help you check the batteries every six months. Set the alarm off on purpose so they’ll know what it sounds like. And purchase a carbon monoxide detector for each floor of your house.

Once you’ve got the basics in order, move on to other issues. Think your kids are blissfully ignorant of the matches in your bathroom, the lighter in your bedside table drawer, and the matches by the barbecue? Ask them to lead you on a matches and lighter round-up. Odds are they’ll surprise you. “Kids will never come to you and say, ‘Can you show me how to use this lighter?’” says Lieutenant Anthony Mancuso of the New York City Fire Department. “They love to take them under the bed or in a closet or the basement, where most fires start.” 

Mancuso advises parents never to use novelty lighters, which can look like toys, and don’t ever let kids touch lighters or matches, even with your supervision. Store everything out of sight in a locked box. Kids can climb!

Then talk about the unexpected. Create a “what if” plan and tell your kids what to do if they ever do hear the alarm or smell smoke. “Stay low and go and wake everyone on your way out” is what New York City firefighters teach children: drop to the floor, where the air will be purest, reach for a wall, and crawl until you reach a doorway. Touch the doorknob; if it’s hot, exit through a window. Establish a meeting place outside the house where the family can congregate, and make sure your child knows to never, ever go back into the house for any reason, even to get you.

Fire drills are a good idea, but don’t ever block an exit or have a middle-of-the-night drill; people can panic and get hurt. “I really don’t want them to be scared to death,” says Mancuso, explaining why he eschews graphic details for common sense teaching. Tailor your lessons to your child’s stage of development; preschoolers should already know that the stove is too hot to touch, and they’re ready to learn to “stop, drop and roll” if they ever catch on fire. Don’t scare your kids, empower them. Even the youngest children can be taught to dial 911.

Most of all, make it personal. Take advantage of free fire station tours and educational events. Introduce your child to your city’s local firefighters, so they can talk to them and see what they look like. Young children can panic and hide from firefighters during a fire; the more comfortable they feel with firefighters, the safer the whole family will be.