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Reducing Fires in the United States

A landmark study from NFPA draws on nearly 40 years of data to assess efforts at reducing fires in the United States

BY SCOTT SUTHERLAND

Over the past 40 years, the number of reported home structure fires in the United States has been cut by half. Deaths and injuries resulting from those fires have also been reduced by half, in large part due to the widespread use of smoke alarms in homes.

Those are some of the findings in an important new NFPA report, “Fire Safety in the United States Since 1980: Through the Lens of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem.” The sweeping study draws on four decades’ worth of national data to create a detailed picture of residential fires, where the greatest share of the country’s fire deaths continue to occur. “This report tells an overall story of success when it comes to lowering the number of fires and fire deaths,” the report’s authors conclude. “The biggest single factor contributing to that success has been the use of smoke alarms, as mandated by the codes, as well as continued public education about their significance.”

While the 10,000-foot view of the story is positive, a ground-level examination offers a more complicated narrative. Forty years ago, young children and older adults accounted for roughly equal shares of fire fatalities; while young children are now less likely to die in fires than the overall population, older people now face a markedly greater risk of fire death. People with disabilities are also at greater risk. Victims of fatal fires are also more likely to live alone. Despite the overall drop in the number of home structure fire deaths, the chances of dying in a reported fire in a one- or two-family home have actually increased since 1980, due to a combination of home design, building materials, and highly combustible new-generation furnishings. Continued development in the wildland/urban interface means millions of people are at risk from urban conflagrations sparked by wildfires. These challenges and more promise to engage the safety community for years to come. “Our work is far from done and, in some areas, it has only just begun,” the authors conclude.

The to-do list is long and varied. An increase in home cooking fires and cooking fire deaths compared to the 1980s suggest research opportunities and more urgent public education efforts. A third of all fatal home fire victims in the US are 65 or older, and research is necessary to better understand how to protect our most vulnerable citizens. Research is also necessary to measure the impact of new smoke alarm technology on unwanted alarms and reported as well as unreported fires. Wildfire’s impact on communities must be addressed using the holistic approach of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem™. Similarly, a holistic approach to fire safety and energy efficiency is needed to ensure that new products and technologies that are developed to mitigate challenges do not result in unintended fire risk. Product standards need to be developed or updated for consumer electronics that use potentially hazardous new technologies, and consumers must be educated on possible risks. And efforts to educate the public on how to protect themselves from fire must be expanded to reduce fatalities and increase life safety.

Birgitte Messerschmidt, director of applied research at NFPA and one of the report’s two authors, sees the findings as the starting point for an important discussion on safety and resilience in the built environment, especially homes. “I’ve spent 25 years working in fire safety, trying to make our built environment more fire-safe, and I’m extremely passionate about it,” she said. “What we need is a more holistic way of thinking about our buildings and how we can improve our level of safety inside those buildings. We’ve demonstrated over and over in many different types of buildings that we can keep people safe if something goes wrong, yet we continue to encounter challenges to achieving that level of safety in our own homes. If we are truly serious about further reducing this country’s fire problem, that has to change.”

ROOTS IN “AMERICA BURNING”

“Fire Safety in the United States Since 1980” is a direct descendant of “America Burning,” the landmark 1973 study that ushered in the modern era of fire safety. Written by the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control, “America Burning” set out to evaluate the scope of the nation’s fire problem and to make recommendations on steps that would reduce loss and improve safety for citizens as well as the fire service. The report estimated civilian and firefighter fire deaths at about 12,000 annually, with another 300,000 injuries—those figures were later revised to about 6,200 and 100,000, respectively—and decried fire’s impact on the country’s poorest and most vulnerable populations.

That streak of outrage runs through much of “America Burning” and contributes to the activist tone of the report and the authors’ unsparing condemnations. “Appallingly, the richest and most technologically advanced nation in the world leads all the major industrialized countries in per capita deaths and property loss from fire,” they wrote. “America’s poor fire record, and its failure to marshal enough scientific and monetary resources to improve the record, concerns those who work in the field of fire protection…[and who] have run against the twin tides of ignorance and indifference—tides which contribute substantially to the extraordinary magnitude of the fire problem in the United States.”

“America Burning” recommended an expanded emphasis on fire prevention, especially through public education; improved training and education for the fire service; improved fire safety education for citizens; a more proactive approach to eliminating safety hazards presented by the design and materials used in people’s homes and workplaces, including testing and labeling; improved fire protection features for buildings; and an expanded research effort to better understand fire-related hazards—in short, the seeds of what would become the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem, a holistic way of defining, evaluating, and addressing fire and life safety hazards. The report also recommended the creation of the US Fire Administration (USFA), which would provide federal oversight and resources to address the nation’s fire problem.

The commission identified a variety of responsibilities for the USFA, and two in particular would inform the 40-year study undertaken by the new NFPA report. One of those USFA charges was the development of a comprehensive national fire data system that would “help establish priorities for research and action,” according to “America Burning”—a system that by 1980 was becoming more sophisticated and detailed. The other important USFA action was to support the creation of an automatic fire sprinkler that could be used in a variety of residential dwelling types. As it happened, the release of “America Burning” coincided with NFPA’s appointment of a subcommittee to develop a standard for automatic sprinklers for one- and two-family homes; in 1975, the first edition of NFPA 13D, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems in One- and Two-Family Dwellings and Manufactured Homes, was published. The second edition of NFPA 13D was released in 1980 and was heavily revised based on new field tests and extensive research. In 1981, UL approved Grinnell’s Model F954 sprinkler, making it the first listed residential sprinkler. The home fire sprinkler era had begun.

For NFPA researchers, those signal events offered a logical starting point for a new study focused on home fires. “With nearly 40 years of data to draw from, we saw this as an important moment to look back and see what that data could tell us,” said Marty Ahrens, manager of fire analysis services at NFPA and co-author of the “Fire Safety in the United States Since 1980” report.

The new report, produced with the support of the Fire Protection Research Foundation, is an up-close look at home structure fires, including apartments and manufactured homes, that draws on fire data from 1980 to 2018, the most recent year data was available. The report also examines fire safety in hospitals and nursing homes and looks at home structure fires in the context of wildland fires and catastrophic multiple-death fires. The authors make ample use of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem to identify successes and trouble spots in the story thus far, and to help identify areas of focus ranging from at-risk populations to emerging technologies.

“The future work and challenges discussed [in this report] can all be dealt with using this system thinking [illustrated by the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem],” Ahrens and Messerschmidt write. “Approaching fire safety as a system, and not individual bits and pieces, provides the opportunity to unravel this complex and ongoing challenge to society and reduce further loss.”

That encompassing approach means the report serves as a detailed road map to further advance fire and life safety, according to Lorraine Carli, vice president of Outreach and Advocacy at NFPA. “Just as ‘America Burning’ identified the risks of the times and ushered in a new level of prevention and action, this is the next seminal body of work that clearly acknowledges progress, identifies the lessons learned, and provides direction to make the next steps forward in every piece of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem,” Carli said.

DATA AND DETAILS

An especially revealing aspect of the NFPA report is its examination of high-rise apartment fires and the impact that fire protection technologies can have on limiting deaths, injuries, and property loss. As the authors point out, apartments are more regulated than one- and two-family homes, and high-rise apartments—defined in the NFPA study as seven stories or more above grade—are even more regulated, often requiring hard-wired smoke alarms, automatic sprinklers, and compartmentation in the construction of the units. All of these features have a marked effect on the fire safety of high-rise apartments, especially compared to one- and two-family homes.

The study found that sprinklers were present in 21 percent of reported high-rise fires in 1985–1989 and in 48 percent in 2014–2018. Similarly, detection in reported high-rise fires increased during that same period, from 67 percent to 93 percent. Those protection increases corresponded with a drop in the number of reported high-rise fires during that same period, from 10,400 to 8,600; a drop in the annual number of fire deaths in high-rise fires (62 to 29); and a drop in the annual deaths per 1,000 reported high-rise fires (6.0 to 3.4). The report also finds that in 2014–2018, fire spread was confined to the room of origin in 98 percent of reported fires in sprinklered high-rise apartments and in 94 percent of reported fires when the apartments were unsprinklered.

For the most part, the high-rise data corresponded with trends in overall home structure fires from 1980 to 2018. Reported annual home structure fires during that period fell from 734,000 to 363,000; associated deaths fell from 5,200 annually to 2,720; and associated injuries dropped from 19,700 to 11,200. But by one critical measure, high-rise apartments have far outpaced one- and two-family homes in the level of safety they provide occupants.

In 1980, deaths per 1,000 reported home structure fires were 7.1 for all types of homes, but in 2018 the deaths per 1,000 reported fires in one- and two-family homes had increased to 8.5—meaning anyone with a reported fire in that occupancy stood a greater chance of dying in the fire than they did nearly 40 years ago. Additionally, by 2018 the overall rate of deaths per 1,000 reported fires in all homes had also increased, to 7.5. Of the broad categories, only apartments had experienced a decrease, to a rate of 4.2 deaths per 1,000 reported fires in 2018, driven in part by the high-rise rate of 3.4. The data presents an unambiguous conclusion: protection technologies like those found in high-rise apartments save lives and protect property, and their inclusion in one- and two-family homes would represent a significant step toward reducing one of the most difficult aspects of the country’s fire problem.

This kind of detail and context exist throughout “Fire Safety in the United States Since 1980” and make the report a must-read for all stakeholders in the battle against home structure fires. The “twin tides of ignorance and indifference” cited in “America Burning” are alive and well, and while the macro view of home structure fires over the past 40 years is largely positive, numerous forces are at work that could hinder or even reverse some of those hard-fought gains.

For Messerschmidt, those challenges add up to a key takeaway that makes the NFPA report essential reading. “We spent a year putting this report together, and I was frankly surprised by a lot of what we uncovered,” said Messerschmidt, whose “Research” column in this issue (“Older, Alone, and At-Risk”) takes a closer look at one of the troubling trends highlighted by the data—the rise of fire deaths occurring among older people, especially those who live alone. “When you look at this problem over this span of time, you see how opportunistic fire can be—we make progress in one area only to have fire move somewhere else and create an entirely new set of problems and concerns. And you see how fragile so many of those gains are, and how easily they can be undone. I hope readers of this report appreciate what we’ve managed to do in the last 40 years, and that they see how critical it is that we keep making progress.”

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