Death Rate in Homes Makes Fire Prevention Live Issue
Industrial Fire Safety
Over these many years, our columns have concentrated on discussions of fire prevention and protection problems and standards and recommendations for alleviating hazards in industrial facilities. However, from time to time we have explored residential fire safety, realizing that home is the most dangerous place in the world from both an accident and fire hazard viewpoint.
Where do we spend most of our hours out of 24? Taking 10 hours out of the 24 for travel and work, that leaves 14 hours spent in a residence, whatever it might be.
How are we protected from fire at work and at home? By fire departments, both paid and volunteer.Most industrial plants have fire extinguishers, automatic sprinkler systems, hose stations, some fire detection systems, and central station water-flow connections. Some have a trained fire brigade and an educational program. At home, it is safe to say we have none of the above, except an occasional fire extinguisher and an even more rare fire alarm installation.
What is the main difference between a place of work and a residence? At work it is assumed you are awake and with all your faculties fully operational. At home, under normal circumstances, you are asleep eight hours. This is why most losses of life in fire in homes occur late at night or in the early morning. Death is usually not the result of the body being burned, but from the effects of smoke and toxic gases from burning building materials and household effects with which we surround ourselves with no thought to the safety of our families or ourselves.
What statistics show: “America Burning,” the report of the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control, reported that 1971 NFPA published and unpublished data showed that 13 percent of the nation’s fire deaths occurred in commercial, public, institutional, industrial and storage buildings, while 87 percent of the deaths were in residential properties. Of the total number of fires, 14 percent were in commercial, public and institutional buildings, 16 percent in industrial and storage structures, and 70 percent in residential occupancies. These statistics are frightening when you can estimate that seven out of every 10 fires occur in residential occupancies.
As for 1972, there were 11,900 fire deaths, the major portion again being residential. As to deaths per million population, the United States has the highest rate in the world, 57.1, and Canada is next with 29.2. In Europe, however, figures like 2.88 for Italy, 4.85 for France and 6.83 for Belgium present a vast difference.
For years fire professionals, whatever their specialty, have spoken and written about fire deaths, but little to nothing has been done about lowering the death rate. It seems as if the only thing of value that needs to be protected is the industrial complex with its high insured property value. This is most disturbing, as much can be done about the death toll right now and in the future.
Commission’s views: The following quotations are from “America Burning” (have you read it?), which are direct and demand soul-searching by all fire professionals.
“In an America that has only lately grown conscious of its ecological responsibilities, there is a need to also develop an awareness of fire’s role as one of the greatest wasters of our natural resources.”
“While genuine economic problems often stand in the way of deeper investment in fire protection, lack of understanding of fire’s threat helps to account for the low priority given fire protection.”
“But indifference exists where it is least excusable. For example, there are those in the fire service who are unaware of the technological state of the art in their field.”
“There are fire department administrators who pay lip service to fire prevention and then do little to promote it.”
“Designers of buildings generally give minimal attention to fire safety in the buildings they design. They are content, as are their clients, to meet the minimal safety standards of the local building code.”
“Lastly, the American public is indifferent to and ignorant of the heavy toll of destructive fire. The problem has not reached the American consciousness with the same force as, for example, the far less lethal problem of air pollution. Indifferent to fire as a national problem, Americans are similarly careless about fire as a personal threat.”
Commission objectives: What are the objectives of the commission report? They include the following:
- There needs to be more emphasis on fire prevention. Please note our articles of May 1967 , December 1968, September 1970, August 1973 and September 1973 in Fire Engineering.
- The fire service needs better training and education.
- Americans must be educated about fire safety. It is shocking to study our present school system and the subjects thought required by educators, especially those involving the K through 5 group. I have been told many times by teachers, yes we teach them to say please, brush their teeth, comb their hair, cross streets with crossing guards, eat right, etc., but fire education, it’s not really that important!
- In both design and materials, the environment in which Americans live and work presents unnecessary hazards. This could be corrected by honest fire ratings of building materials and usage requirements and limitations. We doubt little will be done, except after passage of federal laws controlling materials and their use.
- The fire protection features of buildings need to be improved. Yes, by all means, because our field has progressed little in 50 years.
- Important areas of research are being neglected. We hope this item and others will come to pass in our generation through the passage of proposed legislation to establish a national fire academy, information systems, local and state model programs, and research and development activities.
Recommendations: In conclusion, what can be done now to reduce the loss of life? We recommend:
- An educational program on fire prevention and fire causes should be instituted in all public and private schools, grades K to 5.
- The fire service and private sector fire professions should assist in arranging and implementing those programs, as such citizens are looked upon with respect and considered experts in their chosen field.
- Train fire service personnel in fire prevention and education in addition to, not in lieu of, fire fighting practices.
- Preach to building code officials of all types the need for less combustible construction in residential occupancies.
- Teach architects, designers and engineers of housing developments the value of separation of risk, access of risk and use of fire-safe materials. Beauty is only skin deep. Let’s go beyond the surface and combine beauty and life safety.
- Begin a program of fire prevention through fire inspection of all properties in all areas by all fire departments. The effort now put forth is nil. Granted, it is not easy to do. It is not easy to train the men as inspection work is not as glamorous as riding an engine to a fire, but it will pay greater dividends than all other actions put together.
- Saturate the public with fire information and shape their thought patterns to the problems. It is done with soap, hair spray, drugs, cars, etc.
- Campaign for approved smoke or ionization-type detector systems, both local and central station, in residences to provide early warning to occupants of unsafe conditions so they can leave the premises.
Granted, one cannot solve the fire death and property loss problem overnight, but it is time to stop talking and do something about it with the tools and facts on hand,