Buildings and Fire Hazards
Building fires take about two-thirds of the 12,000 lives lost in fires each year in the United States, according to the commission report, and almost 70 percent of the nearly 1 million building fires in 1971 occurred in residential occupancies of all types, including mobile homes and trailers.
About half of all fire deaths and a third of all property losses were the result of residential fires. If non-building fire losses are excluded, residential fires are responsible for about 87 percent of the deaths and 39 percent of the property losses.
“From the standpoint of life loss particularly, the structures in which Americans live must be the prime focus of the national effort to reduce fire losses,” the commission stated.
“Crowded conditions, dilapidated buildings, unsafe heaters, and the heavy use of alcohol,” the commission said, make it easy to see why “a disproportionate number of residential fires—and fire deaths—occur in low-income neighborhoods.”
The commission commented, “The ignorance among the poor about fire hazards is matched by the indifference or inability of landlords to get rid of the hazards,” and added, “There is no ground for complacency about residential fires among more affluent citizens. There, too, ignorance breeds indifference.”
Commercial and industrial fires
Although commercial fires are about 14 percent of all building fires, they account for 25 percent of the property loss in building fires. A similar high dollar loss ratio is shown in industrial fires, which account for about 16 percent of all building fires but 36 percent of the building property losses, the commission reported.
The 208 fires that took three or more lives in 1971 accounted for 8 percent of the fire deaths that year and eight out of 10 of these fires were in residences.
“In many instances, late detection of the residential fires contributed to the heavy losses in lives and property,” the commission stated, noting that 80 percent of the multipledeath fires were between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., when most people are sleeping.
The report also pointed out that the large-loss fires were only 0.02 percent of all fires, but they caused 11 percent of the dollar loss in 1971. In all these fires, “the building was not sprinklered in the area where the fire originated.”
Careless actions cause fires
The commission declared “that considerably more than half the nation’s fires are caused by the careless actions of man. The rest have environmental causes, such as hazardous products, defects in the home, and lightning.” The commission noted that there are no statistics for the United States, but Canadian figures show that 71 percent of fire fatalities are due to man’s actions, 9 percent to products or processes, and 20 percent to building defects.
“Products can be designed to lessen the consequences of human carelessness” that result in fire, the commission declared. “Buildings can be designed and maintained to ease fire suppression and the evacuation of potential fire victims.”
Americans were accused by the commission of making a false assumption that adequate attention is given to their safety when buildings are designed.
High-rise fire safety
The advent of the modern high-rise building, the commission explained, brought lighter construction systems, many new materials—especially for interiors—permanently sealed windows, and walls and floors with openings for air conditioning ducts and utility cables.
“Each of these features,” the commission commented, “compromised the fire safety of these buildings.”
On the bright side, the commission pointed to the decline in industrial fires and attributed this “to the incorporation of features such as sound construction, special attention to hazards, emergency planning, and wide use of automatic detection, alarm and extinguishing devices.”
The report noted that the number of industrial fires has dropped from 66,000 in 1968 to 41,300 in 1971. The 1971 dollar loss was $390.7 million for industry, compared to $874.1 million for residential occupancies. Of the 11,850 fire deaths in 1971, it is estimated that less than 1000 were in industrial fires.