Initial reactions to fire may endanger people more, survey says

A nationwide survey conducted by Bethesda, MD-based Society for Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) reveals Americans’ first reactions to fire could place them in greater danger.

When asked “If there were a fire in your building, what would be your first action?”, 39 percent responded that they would call the fire department.

“At first glance this seems like a sensible response,” said Chris Jelenewicz, SFPE engineering program manager. “However, people should first exit the building and then call the fire department once in a safe location.”

Only 28 percent of Americans answered that their first action would be to leave the burning building.

Other responses included notifying others (24 percent), fighting the fire (four percent), searching for the source of fire (three percent), and searching for more information (two percent).

“The results of this survey are concerning,” says Jelenewicz. “Delays before deciding to evacuate, time spent searching for the fire, gathering belongings and trying to fight the fire are behaviors that have been observed repeatedly in real fire situations.”

Comparing the results of this survey to research on how humans behave in fire, a study of 335 fire incidents that
occurred in the United States found the top three first reactions were: notifying others (15 percent), fighting the fire (10 percent), and searching for the fire (10 percent). Exiting the building, was not even among the top five things people do when they know there is a fire.

The survey also revealed that the elderly, who are statistically a high-risk group from fires, generally respond incorrectly. More than half of people 65 years old or older would first call the fire department, compared to 30 percent who would exit the building first.

The survey also shows that men are much more likely to try to fight the fire than women. Seven percent of men said that they would fight the fire, compared to less than one percent of women.

“There are significant differences in the way that men and women react to a fire,” said Jelenewicz. “Generally, men are more likely to try and fight a fire. On the other hand, women are more likely to alert others and evacuate the building.”

The survey was commissioned by the Society for Fire Protection Engineers in January, 2007 by Synovate, and polled more than one thousand American adults. The findings have a margin of error of plus (+) or minus (-) three percent. For more information, visit

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