Two people died in a residential fire in Massachusetts in January 2011. Of the 484,500 structure fires reported nationally in 2011, 80 percent took place in residences. (Photo:AP/World Wide)
NFPA Journal®, September/October 2012
By Michael J. Karter, Jr.
In 2011, public fire departments responded to 1,389,500 fires in the United States, according to estimates based on data NFPA received from fire departments responding to its 2011 National Fire Experience Survey. This represents an increase of 4.4 percent from the year before.
An estimated 484,500 structure fires were reported to fire departments in 2011, a slight increase of 0.5 percent, or virtually no change from the year before. From 1977 through 2011, the number of structure fires peaked in 1977 when 1,098,000 fires occurred, then decreased steadily, particularly in the 1980s, to 688,000 by the end of 1989, for an overall decrease of 37.3 percent from 1977.
Structure fires continued to decrease steadily, to 517,500 by the end of 1998, for an overall decrease of 24.7 percent. They remained between 505,000 and 530,500 from 1999 to 2008, before decreasing in 2009 to 480,500 and increasing slightly in 2010 and 2011.
Of the 2011 structure fires, 386,000 were residential fires, accounting for 80 percent of all structure fires, a slight increase of 0.5 percent from 2010. Of the residential structure fires, 274,500 occurred in one- and two-family homes, accounting for 56.7 percent of all structure fires. Another 95,500 occurred in apartments, accounting for 19.7 percent of all structure fires.
For nonresidential structure fires, some property types showed notable changes compared to 2010: there were 6,500 fires involving institutional properties, an increase of 18.2 percent, and 10,000 fires involving industrial properties, an increase of 11.1 percent.
In 2011, 686,000 outside fires were reported, an increase of 8.2 percent over 2010. Of the 2011 outside fires, an estimated 338,000 were brush, grass, and wildland fires, a significant increase of 11.2 percent from the year before. There were also an estimated 79,000 fires outside of structures with value involved, a significant increase of 9 percent from the year before.
From 1977 through 2011, the number of outside fires was at its highest in 1977 when 1,658,500 occurred. The number of outside fires decreased steadily over the next six years, to 1,011,000 in 1983, representing a considerable decrease of 39 percent from 1977. Annual totals of outside fires changed little for the rest of the 1980s, except in 1988 when 1,214,000 occurred. In 1993, the number of outside fires dropped to 910,500 and stayed near the 1 million level for each of the next three years. From 1997 to 2002, the number of outside fires remained between 839,000 and 861,500 annually, except in 1999, when they rose slightly, then rose again in 2005 and 2006, before declining between 2007 and 2010 to 634,000.
There were also an estimated 187,500 highway vehicle fires in 2011, a slight increase of 1.6 percent over 2010, and 31,500 fires in other vehicles, which also produced an increase of 1.6 percent.
Civilian Fire Deaths
Based on data reported to NFPA, the 1,389,500 fires reported by U.S. fire departments in 2011 resulted in an estimated 3,005 civilian deaths. This is a decrease of 3.7 percent from the year before. The nature of the decrease is better understood when these results are examined by property type.
The number of civilians who died in residential fires in 2011 also decreased, by 4.3 percent, to an estimated 2,550 fatalities. Of these deaths, 415 occurred in apartment fires and another 2,105 occurred in one- and two- family homes, for a decrease of 4.3 percent. In all, fires in the home, which are defined here as one- and two-family homes, including manufactured homes and apartments, resulted in 2,520 civilian deaths, a decrease of 4.5 percent from the year before.
Looking at trends in civilian deaths since 1977–1978, several observations are worth noting. Home fire deaths were at their peak in the United States in 1978, when 6,015 occurred. Home fire deaths then dropped steadily from 1979 to 1982, except in 1981, decreasing a substantial 20 percent to 4,820. From 1982 to 1988, the number of home fire deaths remained between 4,650 and 4,950 annually, except for 1984, when 4,075 people died in home fires. From 1989 to 1996, home fire deaths continued to decline, staying between 3,420 to 4,340 fatalities a year. From 1997 onward, home fire deaths have generally continued to decline, with the number staying in the range of 2,520 to 3,200 each year since 2001.
Overall, the number of home fire deaths that occurred between 1977 and 2011 dropped from 5,865 in 1977 to 2,520 in 2011, for a decrease of 51 percent. The number of home fires also declined 49 percent during the same period. When we look at the death rate per 1,000 home fires, there is no steady decline, but rather a rate that fluctuates considerably. In fact, the death rate per 1,000 home fires was 8.1 in 1977 and 6.8 in 2011, for a decrease of 16 percent. These results suggest that, even though the number of home fires and home fire deaths declined similarly during the period, the death rate did not, and that in the event of a home fire, the fire death rate risk did not change much for the period.
With home fire deaths still accounting for 2,520 fire deaths, or 84 percent of all civilian fire deaths in the United States, fire safety initiatives targeted at the home remain the key to any reductions in the overall fire death toll. Five major strategies would help.
First, more widespread public fire safety education is needed on how to prevent fires and how to avoid serious injury or death if a fire occurs. Information on the common causes of fatal home fires should continue to be used in the design of fire safety education messages. Second, more people need to install and maintain smoke detectors and develop and practice escape plans. Third, wider use of residential sprinklers must be aggressively pursued. Fourth, additional ways must be sought to make home products more fire-safe. The regulations requiring more child-resistant lighters are a good example, as are requirements for cigarettes with reduced ignition strength, generally called “fire-safe” cigarettes. The wider use of upholstered furniture and mattresses that are more resistant to cigarette ignitions is an example of change that has already accomplished much and will continue to do more. And finally, the special fire safety needs of high-risk groups, such as the young, older adults, the poor, and people with disabilities, need to be addressed.
In addition, 90 civilians died in 2011 in nonresidential structure fires, a number that remained the same as the year before. An estimated 270 civilians died in highway vehicle fires, for a decrease of 5.3 percent compared to 2010.
Civilian Fire Injuries
In addition to the 3,005 civilian fire deaths that occurred in 2011, there were an estimated 17,500 civilian fire injuries, representing a slight decrease of 1.2 percent from the year before. NFPA estimates that 14,360 of these civilians were injured in residential properties, an increase of 4.1 percent from 2010. Of these injuries, 9,485 occurred in one- and two-family homes, and 4,425 occurred in apartments. Another 1,275 civilians were also injured in nonresidential structure fires last year.
Between 1977 and 2011, the number of civilian fire injuries has ranged from a high of 31,275 in 1983 to a low of 16,400 in 2006, for an overall decrease of 48 percent. There was no consistent pattern up or down until 1995, when injuries fell by roughly 5,000 in 1994–1995, to 25,775. For the period between 1996 to 2002, injuries further declined 28 percent to 18,425. Since 2002, civilian injuries have remained in the range of 16,400 to 18,425 annually.
Estimates of civilian fire injuries tend to be low, because many civilian injuries are not reported to the fire service. For example, many injuries occur at small fires to which fire departments do not respond. Even when departments do respond, they may be unaware of injured persons they do not transport to medical facilities.
NFPA estimates that the 1,389,500 fires to which the fire service responded in 2011 caused nearly $11.7 billion in property damage. This is a very slight increase of 0.6 percent over 2010.
Fires in structures resulted in nearly $9.7 billion of damage, a slight decrease of 0.2 percent, and the average loss per structure fire was $20,006, another slight decrease of 0.8 percent.
From 1977 to 2011, and excluding the events of 9/11, the average loss per structure fire rose from $3,757 in 1977 to $20,006 in 2011, for an overall increase of 432 percent. When property loss is adjusted for inflation, however, the increase in the average structure fire loss between 1977 and 2011 is 43 percent.
Of the property loss in structures, slightly more than $7 billion occurred in residential properties, a decrease of 0.4 percent compared to 2010. An estimated $5.7 billion occurred in one- and two-family homes, a decrease of 2.5 percent, and slightly less than $1.2 billion occurred in apartments.
Other property damage figures worth noting for 2011 include $131 million in special structures, representing an increase of 28.4 percent; $620 million in industrial properties, representing an increase of 20.4 percent; $52 million in institutional properties, representing an increase of 40.5 percent; and $44 million in educational properties, representing a decrease of 42.1 percent.
Keep in mind that property loss totals can change dramatically from year to year because of the impact of occasional large-loss fires. NFPA analyzes these large-loss fires in the November/December issue of NFPA Journal every year.
Intentionally Set Fires
Based on data reported by fire departments, NFPA estimates there were 26,500 intentionally set structure fires in 2011, a decrease of 3.6 percent from the year before. These estimates do not include any allocation of fires with cause unknown or unreported.
These intentionally set structure fires resulted in an estimated 190 civilian deaths, a decrease of 5 percent from 2010. They also resulted in $601 million in property loss, an increase of 2.7 percent.
There were also an estimated 14,000 intentionally set vehicle fires, the same number as 2010. These fires resulted in $88 million in property loss, or a decrease of 1.1 percent.
NFPA thanks the fire departments that responded to the 2011 National Fire Experience Survey for their continuing efforts to provide us, in such a timely manner, with the data necessary for national projections. The survey project manager and author of the report also wishes to thank the members of NFPA staff who worked on this year’s survey, including Frank Deely, John Baldi, and John Conlon for editing the survey forms and making follow-up calls to fire departments, and Norma Candeloro for processing the survey forms and typing this report.
Michael J. Karter, Jr. is a statistician with NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division.
NFPA annually surveys a sample of fire departments in the United States to make national projections of the fire problem. A total of 2,790 fire departments responded to the 2011 fire experience survey.
We stratify the sample by the size of the community the fire department protects. All U.S. fire departments that protect communities of 50,000 or more are included in the sample because they constitute a small number of departments protecting a large share of the total population. For departments that protect fewer than 50,000 people, we selected a sample stratified by the size of community protected. The national projections are made by weighting sample results according to the proportion of total U.S. population accounted for by communities of each size.
For each estimate, we also calculated a sampling, or standard, error. The sampling error is a measure of the error caused by the fact that the estimates are based on a sampling of fire losses rather than a complete census of the fire problem. Because the survey is based on a random sample, we can be very confident that the actual value for overall fire statistics falls within 2 percent for the number of fires, 11 percent for the number of civilian deaths, 5.5 percent for the number of civilian injuries, and 3 percent for the amount of property loss.
The results presented here are based on fires attended by public fire departments. No adjustments were made for unreported fires and losses, such as fires extinguished by the occupant; for fires attended solely by private fire brigades, such as industry and military installations; or for fires extinguished by fixed suppression systems with no fire department response.
In this Section:
|Lessons of Comayagua
In the aftermath of a prison fire in Honduras that killed 361 people, Journal looks at how NFPA codes can improve fire safety in prisons and many other occupancies throughout Latin America.
|After Waldo Canyon
The costliest wildfire in Colorado history was a serious test of local mitigation and preparedness efforts. How effective was the mitigation, and how can it be improved?
|Fire Loss in the United States During 2011
Last year, U.S. fire departments responded to nearly 1.4 million fires, 4.4 percent more than the year before.
|Catastrophic Multiple-Death Fires in 2011
Last year, 23 catastrophic multiple-death fires resulted in 114 fire deaths, including 16 children under age six. An unusually high proportion of fires began with explosions.