NFPA Journal®, July/August 2003
In January 1993, a 54-year-old grandmother, six of her grandchildren, and her infant great grandchild died in a fire in their two-bedroom Bruce, Mississippi, apartment.
Neighbors were alerted to the fire by the sounds of someone beating on the common wall and yelling for help. Others rushing to help the family reported seeing several of the children wildly reaching through the metal security bars on the windows. Trying to help, neighbors were blocked by the bars.
Efforts to break down the back door finally succeeded, but just as the fire engulfed the apartment. By the time firefighters were able to enter the building flames were coming out of the windows. Next month in Detroit, Michigan, seven more children, ranging in age from 7 months to 9 years, died in a house fire. They were trapped by a barred and padlocked door; barred windows covered with mesh grills; and a window blocked by a wooden door and held in place by a large dresser to keep burglars out.
Metal security bars also delayed firefighters' attempts to rescue a mother and her 6-year-old daughter, who were trapped in their burning Jackson, Mississippi, home in January 1999. The woman and her daughter died, but two other children managed to escape through a barred bedroom window. How? According to published reports, the security bars in the bedroom were equipped with an emergency release mechanism that allowed the children to push them open from the inside.
"People are taking steps they think are making them safer in their homes, but what they're really doing is the exact opposite. They're putting themselves more at risk," says Sharon Gamache, executive director of NFPA's Center for High-Risk Outreach. "What happens if the exit doors are blocked by fire? How are they going to get out if there are bars on the windows? The answer is. they're not."
According to NFPA analysis of data from the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) and an NFPA survey, an estimated 19 people died per year and another 26 per year have been injured in home fires between 1986 and 1999 when their escape was blocked by what has been termed for reporting purposes "illegal gates and locks."
Experts attribute many of these deaths to security bars, says Dr. John R. Hall, Jr., assistant vice president of Fire Analysis and Research at NFPA.
The problem is most acute in poorer neighborhoods, Gamache says.
"Statistics show that these neighborhoods tend to have both a higher incidence of crime and a higher incidence of fire," she says. "There are a lot of contributing factors at work here. But if you take the heightened concern about crime in these areas, combine it with an increased chance for fire, and throw in the security bars, you end up with people dying needlessly."
An earlier study by Alison Miller, a former NFPA analyst, found that these same poorer neighborhoods can have makeshift security arrangements that are just as dangerous as security bars. Windows nailed shut or blocked by heavy furniture may keep criminals out, and do so inexpensively, but they can also trap any occupant cut off from normal exits.
In 1993, the very same year as the tragic fires in Bruce and Detroit, NFPA organized the Home Security and Fire Safety Task Force. Its charge: To address the dangers of security bars head-on by promoting alternatives to immovable window bars, encouraging the efforts of local and state lawmakers to protect residents in their districts from being trapped by such devices, and educating the public about the inherent dangers tied to these products.
James McMullen, a now-retired California state fire marshal who was the founding chairman of the Home Security and Fire Safety Task Force, says the group was assembled soon after fire officials throughout the country began noticing an alarming rise in the number of fire-related deaths in home fires.
"In California, we spotted this increase in the early 1990s. This caught our attention because we had been seeing the numbers dropping steadily for several years. Suddenly, they were going back up," McMullen says.
At the same time, fire officials in California saw an increase in security bar installations in their communities, he says.
"It didn't take long to spot the connection," says McMullen. "Many of the deaths that we were seeing were in homes equipped with these bars. Whole families were dying. We knew that if it was happening in California, it had to be happening in other states." Out of this realization, he says, the task force was born.
The task force has worked to address the security bar problem, Gamache says, by encouraging the use of bars that can be opened from the inside by pulling a simple handle, pushing a button, stepping on a pedal, or kicking a lever.
"These new bars keep criminals out, but with one pull of a lever, they also allow people to use the window as a means of escape in an emergency," she says.
"We've worked closely with Underwriters Laboratories to come up with guidelines for acceptable designs of release mechanisms," she says. "The most important aspect of their design is that everyone, even children, must be able to operate them easily."
While Underwriters Laboratories hasn't certified a particular design, it has issued a 47-page overview and comparison of the many variations that are now commercially available.
"This bulletin is something cities and towns can use when judging the designs that will be acceptable in their communities," Gamache says.
California, Mississippi, and Texas recently enacted legislation focused specifically on these devices.
"The Mississippi laws were drafted in direct response to the Bruce fire," Gamache says.
Of the three states, Gamache points to California as the model she hopes other states follow.
"California really tried to get to the heart of the issue," she says. "They made the most sweeping changes."
McMullen, who was a fire service member in the California for 30 years, was still the state's fire marshal when the laws were adopted. He also worked closely with the officials in Texas who were drafting similar laws.
"We tried to do several things with our legislation," he says of California. "First of all, we wanted to make it illegal to fit every window of a home with bars that didn't open. With our first bit of legislation, we required at least one window in every sleeping room be equipped with a release mechanism that has been listed or approved by a nationally recognized research lab, like Underwriters Laboratories."
The state also approved a law giving municipalities authority to enact local ordinances requiring these bars to have a safety lock on the outside that firefighters can use to open them.
"It's a Knox Box setup," McMullen says. "Firefighters use a special key to open the bars if they have to get inside. As we've seen in some of the past fires, bars not only trap victims inside the houses, they also keep the firefighters out."
California lawmakers also set a minimum size for windows equipped with these safety locks.
"They have to be big enough for firefighters to get through with full gear," McMullen says. "What good is it if you can open the bars but you don't fit inside?"
Finally, the state required that all bar installation kits sold to do-it-yourselfers be clearly labeled to reference the California laws pertaining to these devices.
McMullen says these state laws focus on new construction, as well as existing buildings.
"We wanted to address these problems in all of the buildings, not just the new ones," he says.
This program provides communities with instructions and literature to help officials understand and teach security bar safety along with other basic home fire safety lessons.
"We included the messages about having working smoke detectors and practicing fire drills in the program because they are all important parts of home fire safety," Gamache says. "Even if the homeowners don't take all the messages to heart, maybe they'll take one or two. Any little bit helps."
The information, which is meant for distribution through local authorities such as the building, fire, and police departments, can be downloaded directly from the NFPA Web site at www.nfpa.org. Once on the home page, visitors should click first on the blue "Public Education" tab at the top of the screen, then select "Center for High-Risk Outreach" in the blue box at the left of the next screen. From here, visitors can view a brief instructor's guide and the Safe and Secure brochure in both English and Spanish.
"This is all valuable information that communities can put to good use," says Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Fire Marshal Steve Kastner. "Public education is such a key component to saving lives."
Kastner notes that this program was adapted successfully in his city during a crackdown on safety code violations involving security bars.
"Every building code across the country requires two means of egress from bedrooms," he explains. "This minimum requirement is also clearly stated in NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®. If a bedroom only has one door, one of those means of egress has to be a window. What we were seeing were bars across all of these windows. There was no second egress. It was a clear violation that was putting people in danger."
To begin addressing the problem, officials conducted a drive-by survey of the homes throughout the 35-square-mile (9,065-hectare), 152,000-resident city, Kastner says.
"Our inspectors created a list of all the houses with security bars," he says. "From this list, we got a good sense of the scope of the problem." At the same time, officials visited neighborhood groups and civic organizations to explain the dangers associated with the bars.
Next, city inspectors went to the homes found to be in violation and gave owners a deadline for complying with the codes. They also provided them with information about what had to be done and, during the same visit, gave them the forms they needed to apply for a grant through the town to help pay for the work.
"We're asking them to replace their old bars with ones that open. Depending on the size of the windows, it could run them about $200 each," Kastner says. "We're talking about mostly low-income neighborhoods. This was a lot to ask. We knew we had to give them some way to pay for the work, as long as they were income-qualified."
The money, part of a state Community Block Grant, wasn't paid directly to the residents.
"We paid a contractor that the city had approved prior to the start of the program," Kastner says. "This way, we were sure the money was being spent correctly and the person doing the work was doing it right."
NFPA's Gamache calls Fort Lauderdale's work, "an outstanding example of public outreach and education."
"In one visit with the homeowner, they explained the problem, told them what they had to do, how to do it, and even gave them a way to pay for it," she says. "This program has everything going for it."
What's next for the task force? Asked about the most important aspect of the group's future efforts, Ernest Grant, who serves as the group's current chairman, offers a two-word answer: more publicity.
"A large part of preventing future injuries and deaths is getting the message out," he says. "If lawmakers, firefighters, and the public know about the dangers, then the problem can be addressed properly. The trouble is so many communities have yet to hear the message."
That's where the general media, and publications such as the NFPA Journal®, serve a vital role, Grant says.
"Articles like this one get people thinking, get people talking," he says. "Maybe some fire departments were aware of the problem but didn't know where to begin. Now they know our task force exists. They know that we're here, willing to offer technical support and guidance. They also now know that state money can be used to help pay for replacing some of these bars."
Grant, a certified burn nurse and manager of the University of North Carolina Hospitals' burn prevention program, says many of the fire-related injuries his unit handles each week were the result of incidents that could have or should have been prevented.
"I see burn victims who never thought they were at risk for injuries like this," he says. "They never really considered ways to make their homes safer. They never thought about blocked windows or blocked doors. I see firsthand evidence every day of this lack of knowledge that the task force and groups like NFPA are working so hard to overcome."