Whether they like it or not, apartment building residents who suffer through routine middle-of-the-night fire alarms at least have come to know their emergency exit strategy.

But even those who don't regularly go through unwelcome building clearances should pay attention to fire safety. Someday, that fire alarm could be for real.

One sharp reader asks the kind of questions all tenants should ask about current or prospective apartments.

QI have been looking for a new apartment in the District. A number of them are either in the basement or on the first floor, and they have bars on the windows and metal gates at the doors. What are the safety requirements so I can get out in case of a fire? How many exits do I need to have to meet both fire and renters insurance requirements? Does the D.C. fire code say that keyed locks are sufficient, or do the windows and doors need to have some kind of panic bar? Finally, some of the gates have horrible prison-style mesh to protect the lock. They make it look like I am being locked up. Are there more attractive alternatives that are still safe? -- Tim Burr

AFire-safety regulations do need to be met even if crime near or around an apartment building warrants putting bars on windows and doors.

The District and states throughout the country follow the International Building Code, although local jurisdictions may have additional requirements. The 2002 version of the code mandates only that a dwelling have at least one way of getting out in case of a fire or other emergency.

Where there are bars on windows without an escape latch, the door is considered an escape exit.

"There are specific requirements in regard to what kind of locks and latches to put on a door of that type," said Ron Nickson, vice president of building codes for the District-based National Multi Housing Council.

The door must have some kind of operable quick-release, such as a latch, chain or lever on the inside, so that the resident is not trapped by bars on windows. It may not have a deadbolt or any other security mechanism that requires the use of a tool or a key.

If the unit has a sprinkler system, then only one escape exit is mandated. However, if it does not, then a second escape exit is necessary. A secondary exit may be another door or a window.

Windows deemed to be secondary escape exits in buildings without sprinkler systems must have at least 5.7 square feet of open area. In such buildings, the window can't be blocked with a grille or grate unless it can be removed from the inside without the use of a key or a tool.

Nickson said that often building owners add grilles and bars after the building has its first official inspection. Because of this, many are in violation of safety codes. If a key is needed to get out of all security exits where there are bars reinforcing doors and windows, you might want to look elsewhere to live or ask management to add a quick-release system to the exits.

"People should make sure locks are releasable and they won't be trapped," Nickson said.

In addition, tenants should be aware that this type of extra security, with or without easy escape systems, can cause other problems.

"Security devices on the outside make it hard to get in. Firemen would have to break through the security device to get in," Nickson said.

As for the ugly mesh covering the lock, which makes this reader feel as if he is living in a prison, there's no aesthetically pleasing solution to following building code in places where grilles and bars are the norm. Because the lock on the inside of the grille has to have a knob (and not a deadbolt) on the inside to open, property managers will cover the knob with mesh so that an outsider cannot reach through the iron fence and open it.

Perhaps there's a crafty inventor out there who will come up with something a tad more eye-pleasing but that is still as functional as the mesh wrap. Either way, bars on windows and grilles on doors are probably much more noticeable than a doorknob covering.

And although renters insurance policies differ, in the case of a fire, most will comply with laws about proper fire exits. In the spirit of taking precautions, however, it's a good idea to check the exact terms of a renters insurance policy.

It's a good idea to cover all bases when it comes to safety. You should locate your apartment's exits and know how to get out of the unit and the building in case of an emergency.

On a much less serious note, another reader asks how to display eclectic items without cramping her style.

I was recently married, and my husband and I have accumulated many different pieces of furniture, artwork and accent pieces as gifts. Many of these pieces have sentimental value (a Shaker-style table handcrafted by my father-in-law; a flat Somalian basket woven from sugar cane given to us by my best friend, who is in the Peace Corps; a handmade pepperberry wreath and several country-blue woven placemats and tablecloths made by our grandmothers), but the styles don't seem to match what we own.

We live in an apartment, so space is an issue. I hate to store them in a closet, but I'm not sure how to incorporate these pieces. Do you have any advice for us? -- Jamie Bittner

Odds and ends have a habit of piling up, especially as you live years in one place. Many people face the dilemma of finding a place for the things that add to their clutter yet have great sentimental value.

A little creative thinking can put some of the interesting items acquired from traveling, gifts and impulse buys to good use.

"It's called hodgepodge," said decorator Kerry Touchette, who runs District-based Kerry Touchette Interiors Inc. "It's a logical progression. Evaluate which is the most important item and then build around it. Think about what the essence of the piece is and find other pieces in the same genre that suggest the same mood."

For example, find one or more items that might complement a Shaker table, such as a lamp, a little framed picture or a wood carving made in a similar style. There's no need to worry about too many conflicting styles intersecting with one another in small spaces when the pieces are relatively small.

Things such as wreaths can be brought out for the holidays, and other small accent pieces can be nailed to the wall or hung in the space above a window.

Remember to try to find multiple functions for items because small space is limiting. Baskets may be used to hold magazines, potpourri, plants or fruit. A Shaker table could double as a dining table and a table that holds a lamp in the foyer; it could even be used as a bedside table.

Do you have questions, comments or ideas about apartment life? Contact Sara Gebhardt via e-mail at gebhardts@washpost.com or by mail, c/o Real Estate Editor, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.