This analysis of the circumstances of home upholstered furniture fire includes a comparison of upholstered furniture fires started by smoking materials vs. fires started by candles, matches or lighters, as well as an examination of smoke alarms in home upholstered furniture fires. Previously published incident descriptions are included in an Appendix.
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Upholstered furniture fires in the home environment have fallen sharply, dropping 84% from a high of 36,900 in 1980, the first year of usable data, to a 30-year low of 5,900 in 2009. Even with a 67% drop in the number of associated deaths from highs of 1,360 in 1980 and 1981 to a low of 450 in 2009, upholstered furniture remains the leading item first ignited in home fire deaths. During 2005-2009, upholstered furniture was the item first ignited in 2% of reported home fires. These incidents caused one of every five (19%) home fire deaths.
Smoking materials remain the leading heat source in upholstered furniture fires and associated deaths although their share has fallen dramatically over time. In the early 1980s, almost two-thirds (59-64% in 1980-1984) of home
upholstered furniture fires were ignited by smoking materials. These fires caused more than three-quarters (77-82%) of the associated death. During 2005-2009, in contrast, smoking materials caused roughly one-quarter (28%) of the upholstered furniture fires and three of every five (58%) associated deaths. In 2008 and 2009, the two most recent years of available data, only half (49-50%) of the home upholstered furniture deaths resulted from fires started by smoking materials.
More than half (53%) of the victims of upholstered furniture fires started by smoking materials in 2005-2009 were in the area of origin and involved in the ignition. An additional 11% were in the area but not involved.
In 1980-1984, candles, lighters or matches caused almost one of every five (17-19%) upholstered furniture fires and 6-16% of the associated deaths. In 2005-2009, candles (10% of the fires and 6% of the deaths), lighters (8% of the fires and 5% of the deaths), and matches (3% of the fires and 1% of the deaths) together caused more than one in five (22%) upholstered furniture fires and 12% of the associated deaths. Someone playing with the candle, lighter or match was a factor in roughly one-third of these small open flame ignitions and associated deaths. In almost one-third of these ignitions, the candle, lighter or match was too close to something that could catch fire. This would be more common with candles than the other two open flames.
Roughly one-quarter of the small open flame ignitions were intentionally set. However, playing with heat source was a contributing factor in most of these intentional fires.
Almost half (46%) of the victims of upholstered furniture fires started by candles, lighters or matches were in the area of origin and involved in ignition. An additional 12% were in the area but not involved.
In 1980-1984, operating equipment caused 13-16% of these fires and 3-9% of the associated deaths. In 2005-2009, operating equipment caused 22% of the home upholstered furniture fires and 15% of the associated deaths. Electrical distribution or lighting equipment was involved in more than one-third of these operating equipment fires and three out of five associated deaths (9% of all home upholstered furniture fires and 11% of the deaths). Cords or plugs were the leading type of equipment involved in upholstered furniture deaths. Heating equipment was involved in roughly one-third of the operating equipment fires and associated deaths (9% of all home upholstered furniture fires and 7% of the associated deaths), with fixed or portable space heaters, including wood stoves, accounting for the majority of heating equipment involved.
Only 19% of the victims of operating equipment fires were in the area of origin and involved in ignition. An additional 8% were in the area but not involved.
Hot embers or ashes caused 10% of the upholstered furniture fires and resulting deaths. Sleep was a factor in 12% of the ignitions and 28% of the associated deaths.
Assessing the probable impact of any one approach to fire safety is challenging. New materials enter the marketplace. Upholstered furniture is a durable product. New furniture is likely to meet current flammability standards. Over time, things get spilled on the furniture, the fabric may wear out, and the furniture may pass to a different household. It is important to remember that these statistics are based on all upholstered furniture, some of which may be very old.
Changes in the environment also complicate the issue. Homes are much more likely to have smoke alarms today than they were in 1980. This means that more fires may be discovered before fire department assistance is required. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) required lighters to be child-resistant beginning in 1994, resulting in a drop in fires started by children playing. The increase in candle sales in the 1990s was accompanied by an increase in candle fires. Laws requiring “fire-safe” cigarettes that extinguish when not inhaled have been passed, and as of July 1, 2011, are in effect in all 50 states. Home fire sprinklers can control a fire until the fire department arrives. More information about home fire sprinklers is available at firesprinklerinitiative.org.