By Becki White
Each year, fire prevention professionals examine the number of civilians who die as result of fire. We look at the numbers from month to month and compare them to previous years. But they aren’t mere statistics. They’re people — mothers, fathers, grandparents, and children.
Most fire deaths are preventable and any number above zero shouldn’t be tolerated. We need to reconsider how our society reacts to fires. We need to reprogram ourselves. Fires are tragic whether fatal or not, but the bigger tragedy is when we don’t look at the behavior causing the fire and correct it.
We hear it over and over: “The cause of the fire was a cigarette…a candle…ashes removed from the fireplace…” In fact, we hear it so often, we start to believe it. We just accept as fact that fires are caused by inanimate objects. We feel sorry about fires — even fires that are 100-percent preventable. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have sympathy for victims of fire loss — especially when lives are lost. But that’s not the only thing we should feel; we should also be upset. We shouldn’t simply accept people dying in preventable fires or in homes without working smoke alarms.
I subscribe to the U.S. Fire Administration Civilian Fire Fatality Notifications, so every day I open my e-mail and see a list of people who have died in U.S. fires and the details that describe those fires. I see the names of moms and dads, grandmas, grandpas — sometimes whole families have died because of careless smoking, overcrowded extension cords, cooking, candles — the list goes on and on.
When I read about these deaths day after day, I have two thoughts. The first is how the fire cause is reported. Usually, it’s something like this: “The fire started when draperies were ignited by a candle.” Well, candles don’t cause fires. Misuse of candles causes fires.
The other thought is a persistent question: Why is it that the media and the public assign responsibility when it comes to car crashes and crimes, but not fires? There is almost always a person’s action or behavior described or implied when we hear reports of crimes and vehicle crashes on the news. I remember a time, not too long ago, when crashes were called “accidents.” But society has recognized that vehicle crashes aren’t accidents: they are the direct result of driver behavior.
Many fire educators will say the three leading causes of fire are men, women, and children. Actions or inaction cause most fires. We shouldn’t turn a blind eye to that fact. We shouldn’t accept that a candle destroyed a home (and possibly lives) when the simple act of extinguishing it before leaving the room would have prevented the disaster.
I understand it’s a delicate topic. It’s hard to tell people that their lack of caution caused the loss of all of their worldly possessions — but at the same time, why not? When people — even children — make conscious choices to do things; we hold them accountable. Shouldn’t that hold true when they make conscious choices not to act? When someone is ejected from a car because he wasn’t wearing a seat belt, it is reported as a contributing factor. Everyone knows that seat belts need to be worn for protection in case of a crash and if seat belts were not worn, that’s part of the news story. That accountability element is usually missing in accounts of fires and fire fatalities.
In my state, smoke and carbon monoxide alarms are state-mandated. It’s against the law not to have a working smoke alarm, but every year people die in house fires with no working smoke alarms. Some don‘t have a single alarm in their residence. This is unacceptable! It also goes unreported by media and by some fire departments.
Preventative measures are easy to communicate. Pay attention when you are cooking; use candles only when you are in the room; better yet, use flameless candles; dispose of smoking materials safely and responsibly; extinguish them completely; install and maintain smoke alarms; protect your home with a residential fire sprinkler system. Add to your comments to the media: “This tragedy could have been avoided if the resident had working smoke alarms. Make sure you check yours tonight.” The people watching the news story want to know how they can avoid the same tragedy. Turn the media exposure away from sensationalizing the fire into an educational opportunity.
Changing behavior and practicing safety are the only ways to prevent these tragedies. Ignoring indicators before or after a fire is the same as granting your approval. Ignored behavior is accepted behavior. If you deal with the media after a fire in your community, state those obvious points that are being left out. Push for working smoke alarms, residential sprinkler systems, and personal accountability for actions or inactions. Change has to start with us.
Becki White is a Minnesota deputy state fire marshal and a captain in the Eden Prairie (MN) Fire Department. She has a master’s degree in teaching and learning and was an elementary teacher for 12 years. White has combined her passion for education with her knowledge and experience in the fire service to become a resource for fire and life safety educators. White is also the vice president of the North Star Women’s Firefighter Association, a nonprofit organization that assists with mentoring, networking, and training women in the fire service.
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