Fire Education K-12: Lowering Fire Deaths

A study was conducted in 1972 with the intention of reducing deaths caused by fires. This study eventually led to the forming of the United States Fire Administration (USFA). Shortly after the USFA was formed, smoke detectors were added to homes; businesses started being inspected; and standards, laws, and codes were created. By 2007, a study was conducted comparing fire frequency in America with the rates of other countries around the world. Despite the creation of smoke detectors and fire codes in 1972, the results showed that the United States was still significantly behind the rest of the world when it came to fire safety.

Today, schools in the United States are not teaching students enough about fire safety. Once a year-one day during Fire Prevention Week-fire departments all over the country demonstrate and lecture to public schoolchildren about fire safety. However, a once-a-year visit is not enough time for children to remember these lessons. The USFA has the ability to educate teachers to conduct fire safety and precaution lessons to children as part of their school’s curriculum.

The following research examines how important fire safety is and explains how schools in the United States should educate their youth more about fire safety. Specifically, this study explains the importance of fire safety in the classroom, where safety precautions will be reinforced. These precautions can include how to “stop, drop, and roll”; how to exit a burning building; and when to leave or stay in a burning building.

By the 1970s, insurance companies began to realize that they were paying out very large amounts of money in fire damage and death. Therefore, insurance companies decided to get involved with life, property, safety, and prevention. Richard Bland, a chairman of the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control and a professor of engineering, sent then President Richard Nixon a letter (photo 1) highlighting how more than $11 billion was wasted by fires each year. This letter also highlighted how 12,000 people are killed and tens of thousands are scarred physically and emotionally. Bland submitted with this letter the report that he and his committee worked on for two years called America Burning.

(1) Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
(1) Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

America Burning stated that a focus on fire prevention must be mandatory and that fire departments need to do more than just put fires out; they need to educate children on fire safety and educate adults through fire inspections. Fire departments also need to enforce fire prevention codes and ensure buildings are safe for quick exits. The report also stated that the fire service needed better training and education. Bland explained in the letter that fire training will reduce firefighters’ injuries and improve their effectiveness. The main goal of America Burning was to motivate America to educate people about fire and to help prevent fires caused by carelessness and faulty equipment.

Fire safety and prevention need to be incorporated into school curricula from kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12) and perhaps even through college to help prevent fires, deaths, and injuries. Children need to know that fire can be deadly, especially since children are often fascinated by flames. Television programs tend to make fire look like fun; they never concentrate on the danger of fire. Children need to be taught simple precautions such as not to play with matches and lighters. At the same time, children need to understand that people need fire to live. People use fire to cook; to keep homes warm; and, in some locations, to be used in a “controlled burn” when a wooded area becomes overgrown.

Today, schools in the United States have curricula that teach a small fraction of fire prevention, which is not enough. In Long Branch, New Jersey, the K-12 health and safety curriculum includes, explains, and demonstrates ways to prevent injuries. This safety curriculum incorporates seat belt and child safety seats in motor vehicles as well as protective gear, followed by fire, bus, and traffic safety procedures being taught in kindergarten. Health teachers never mention fire safety after this lesson. In the 10th grade, students are taught first aid, followed by automatic external defibrillation by the 12th grade.

Books and Videos

The above safety education is not enough to save lives. Fire prevention teams must visit schools in October during Fire Prevention Week. Teams of firefighters should visit, gear up, and show the children what firefighters look like when wearing their air masks. Firefighters should speak about stop, drop, and roll and what someone should do if he catches on fire. However, doing this once a year is not enough to help children remember what to do when there is an actual fire; they need to be constantly reminded. People being scarred for life can be prevented by proper education. So, take more time to educate children on what they need to know.

Also consider reading Anthony Avillo’s book Fireground Strategies, which uses real situations and previous case studies that involve fire to educate firefighters. The book focuses on one incident-the Granton Avenue high-rise fire-where an elderly woman on oxygen (O2) had four canisters of O2 in her apartment. She was a cigarette smoker. When she removed her O2 to inhale a cigarette, the couch became oxygenized and ignited. As people evacuated from the apartment complex, doors were left open, allowing the fire and smoke to spread. The stairways filled with smoke, causing two people to become overcome by smoke, killing them in the stairway. Fire education could have saved these two lives, and the elderly woman could have been trained to not have fire near her O2 as well as to pin the doors open, which would have moved the smoke and fire away from the stairway. Building residents above the fire should have stayed in their apartments; it would have been safer than trying to leave the burning building.

Training videos are also available for schools to help teach students about fire safety. Dr. Frank Field, a well-known meteorologist, went to a fire station and geared up with hat, coat, boots, hood, gloves, and,d.dmg”>self-contained breathing apparatus and went to a response for a burning building. Field went into a burning building with the firefighters and videotaped them, allowing him and others to see how bad a fire really is from the inside. Field then produced a children’s video of his fire safety lessons titled FIRE IS …. In it, Field explains and shows students how smoke is black and that in it you cannot see your hand in front of your face. He then explains how fire is hot, how it can burn your skin, and how fast it is-fast enough to trap you in a room. Field then covers how fire is smoke and gas and how the gases fill your lungs and you can die. Last, he explains that fire is an emergency, and you should always dial 911 when you encounter it.

Articles and Reports

Mike Kirby’s and Tom Lakamp’s article “Extinguishment Before Rescue” (Fire Attack column in Fire Rescue, June 2013) discussed how, in many cases, firefighters should find and then extinguish the fire. When the fire is put out, the risk of the fire spreading is over. The authors also explain how venting and adding O2 to the fire will spread the fire; therefore, the firefighters must decide to find the fire with very few open doors or windows and to put water on the flames.

Every occupant should know that if he sees the fire trucks, he must not panic and begin running out of the room to find the firefighters. If he does, this can cause many complications. For instance, the door he opens can feed oxygen to the fire, allowing the fire to spread and fill the room with smoke, potentially leading to death by smoke inhalation. If the room is completely full of smoke, the added oxygen can cause a backdraft, which will kill the occupant and the firefighters. This decision is very dangerous, so the occupant must wait; if a window is near, he must open it, make sure the door is closed, and then stick his head out the window for fresh air.

In 2007, The TriData Division of System Planning Corporation sent Philip Schaenman to Europe to study fire education and prevention throughout the world. Schaenman found that Europe was extremely ahead of America when it came to teaching fire safety. During Schaenman’s study, he also observed England, Scotland, Sweden, and Norway. His research resulted in the report International Concepts in Fire Protection: Ideas from Europe That Could Improve U.S. Fire Safety.

A second study was done from 2007 to 2008 on the Pacific Rim nations of Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. A third study was conducted from 2008 to 2009 on Mexico and South America based on their fire safety and fire knowledge. All three studies showed that, again, the United States lagged far behind these countries with regard to fire knowledge and fire safety.

These studies show that the USFA still has a long journey ahead of it-that is, until the United States has improved its fire safety. In 2011 alone, 240,500 U.S. homes were destroyed by fire. There were 2,050 deaths, 8,350 injuries, and $5.8 billion in property damage; 23 percent of these fire structures did not have working smoke alarms on their premises. One of the main causes of these fires was food left on the stove.

Multifamily homes were different; the smoke alarms are hard-wired in and monitored. In these residences, there were 102,300 fires causing 400 deaths, 4,175 injuries, and $1.2 billion in damage. The types of fires in multifamily homes were also different: 13 percent were electrical, 13 percent were caused by exposure (too close to other fires), 12 percent were set, and 12 percent were caused by carelessness.

Education is one of the greatest tools available to help the United States succeed in fire safety and knowledge, and that includes educating ourselves in how other countries tackle this problem. Fire safety in schools can educate youth and save hundreds of lives. If the United States begins teaching students in the primary grades and continues throughout the years, the USFA will create curricula to educate everyone, saving the lives of many.

Author’s note: This article was inspired by the December 25, 2011, Connecticut fire that killed three young children and their grandparents; the home had no smoke alarms.


Bland R. (1971) America Burning. Retrieved from fa-264.pdf.

Long Branch (NJ) School curriculum. Retrieved from

Avillo A (2002). Fireground Strategies. Tulsa, Oklahoma: PennWell Corporation.

Kirby M and T Lakamp. (June 2013). “Extinguish before Rescue!” Fire Rescue. Tulsa, Oklahoma: PennWell.

Robertson JC (2010). Introduction to Fire Prevention. 7th ed. Pearson. Upper Saddle River, NJ.

JOSEPH SIRIANNI is a 38-year veteran and the former chief of the Long Branch (NJ) Fire Department. He is also a member and former captain of Elberon (NJ) First Aid and a career emergency medical technician with Long Branch First Aid. Sirianni is also a member of the Deal (NJ) Fire Company and the Allenhurst (NJ) Fire Department. He has a bachelor of science degree from Columbia Southern University.

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