Mandatory fire-code inspections each time a property is sold or leased, legislation requiring that cigarettes be self-estinguishing and the widespread installation of sprinkler systems could help prevent some of the thousands of deaths by fire in the United States each year, fire service professionals meeting here were told this week.

Americans also have to learn a lot more about how to save themselves and their homes from fire, speakers at the U.S. Fire Administration's annual fire conference maintained, and fire departments have to spread the message.

One anecdote to illustrate the importance of public education was repeated several times here. The anecdote concerned the woman who was able to save herself and a companion in the disastrous MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas Nov. 21 because she remembered the way actor Dick Van Dyke crawled out of a smoke-filled room in a television public service announcement about fire safety.

Children, especially, have to be educated about how to react when fire hits, starting when they are old enought to watch "Sesame Street," which has begun showing its own "stop, drop and roll" skits to demonstrate how to extinguish burning clothing, the fire officials were told.

While surviving a high-rise fire may depend largely on knowing when to stay put, getting out of a house fire safely may depend on having a clear idea of where the best exits lie -- information that architects should include in the designs they pass on to builders and owners, one engineering consultant said.

But clearly, high-rise disasters, particularly in hotels, were on many minds at this three-day conference, which drew close to 900 fire chiefs, inspectors, insurance company representatives and equipment manufacturers. The Fire Administration, a division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, released the preliminary findings of federal investigators who looked into the MGM fire and found that the building design had contributed to the spread of the fire, which took 84 lives.

Fire Administration head Gordon Vicery, a crusty former fire chief from Seattle, laid a lot of the blame for such disasters on public apathy about fire safety, which he said allows hundreds of buildings throughout the United States to have the same potential for fire tragedy as the massive Las Vegas hotel.

There was a debate here over culpability in such disasters, however, with many fire officials coming down heavily on building inspectors they contend are lax about constructing or retrofitting to code standards. Speakers urged fire officials to take a more aggressive role in searching for fire hazards and helping toughen local ordinances. Many officials said they were hamstrung by local law in their ability to inspect buildings and to influence construction standards.

Some said human behavior -- ignorance of how to act in a fire -- was the real underlying cause for most fire deaths. But they also accused hotel and building owners of allowing repair and maintenance personnel to breach fire walls in existing structures and of permitting interior decorators to load up lobbies and rooms with highly flammable furniture and accessories.

At the same time, some fire officials and engineers here suggested that it may be unrealistic to expect building owners to fireproof their structures totally since the cost of such safety measures is in many cases simply too high.

Fire officials did emphasize, however, that sprinkler systems have proved to be the most effective means for preventing loss of life and property and they urged that insurance discounts and tax incentives be given owners -- much in the way preservation and energy conservation is encouraged -- for installing these systems.

During the first half of the 1970s, 99 lives were reported lost during fires in buildings with sprinklers; most of those deaths were the result of explosions or fires that started in parts of the structures without sprinklers. In contrast, thousands of lives were lost in buildings without the systems, Russ Fleming of the Industry Group representing sprinkler manufacturers told the conference.

"A fully sprinklered building is the best defense against fire," New York fire chief Frank Cruthers said. Where sprinklers are not required, it is mandatory that the size of the area of an office or other room be limited, he said.

Ron Coleman, the fire chief in San Clemente, Calif., said that his area's mandatory residential sprinkler ordinance, the first in the country, was adding about $1,000 to the cost of each new house, but was being carefully watched by hundreds of jurisdictions across the country. The technology for home sprinkling systems is changing because the industry is gearing up for production, he said.

While Coleman observed that fire chiefs have become more involved in the prevention aspects of fire-fighting in the past decade, Randall Scott, of the American Bar Association's project for improving code enforcement, suggested that they may also not have "the political will to prosecute" building owners who violate fire codes. In addition, he charged that, on the federal level, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has "walked away from its support for code enforcement."

"But is there any question that there is some irresponsible lack of review of construction plans?" Scott said. "Is there any question that for years, violations should have been discovered . . .?" The collapse of the code enforcement system is a "failure on the part of the private and public sectors," he said.

"What if inspection was required at the time of sale or leasing of any property?" he suggested. He said the ABA suppports the Fire Administration's efforts to have inspection laws expanded and "to get legal obstacles out of your way."

Other speakers said it is important for home owners to be completely aware of their homes' wiring systems before they add insulation, because there are hundreds of deaths a year from fires started when insulation is laid over faulty wiring. Others cited the danger of keeping stoves going for warmth and of using old-fashioned space heaters, or of putting heaters too close to combustible material -- again the human factor.

Andrew McGuire, executive director in San Francisco of the Burn Council, and national director of a campaign for fire-safe cigarettes, said that the more than 1,800 deaths each year caused by carelessly discarded cigarettes could be thwarted by the manufacture of self-extinguishing cigarettes, the technology for which is known by the tobacco industry.

Legislation that would mandate safe cigarettes has been introduced in the House and Senate, he said, and would establish a performance standard that would reduce cigarettes' igniting capacity but would not allow tar, nicotine or carbon monoxide levels to increase. Cigarettes are the "leading cause of residential fire deaths," he noted.