EVERY YEAR, NFPA SURVEYS A SAMPLE OF public fire departments in the United States, stratified by the size of the community they protect, to project national estimates of the U.S. fire problem. Based upon the data we received in response to our 2014 National Fire Experience Survey, we estimate that public fire departments responded to 1,298,000 fires last year. While this represents a 4.7 percent increase from 2013, it is the second lowest estimate since 1977–78, when NFPA began using its current survey methodology.
Of these fires, an estimated 494,000 were structure fires, an increase of 1.3 percent from the year before. From 1977 to 2014, the number of structure fires peaked in 1977 at 1,098,000, then decreased steadily through the 1980s. By 1989, the number of structure fires had decreased 37.3 percent, to 688,000 fires. In the subsequent decade, structure fires again decreased steadily by 24.7 percent, to 517,500 by the end of 1998. The number of structure fires then remained between 505,000 to 530,500 over the next 10 years, before decreasing to 480,500 in 2009. Since then, structure fire levels have ranged between 480,000 and 495,000 annually.
We categorize structure fires as residential and nonresidential. Residential structural fires occur in one- and two-family homes, including manufactured homes, apartments, and hotels and motels, as well as all other residential structures such as dormitories, boarding houses, and tents. Non-residential structure fires occur in places of public assembly, schools and colleges, health care and penal institutions, stores and offices, industrial facilities, storage facilities, and other structures such as outbuildings and bridges.
In 2014, there were 386,500 residential structure fires, accounting for 78.2 percent of all structure fires. This was a decrease of 500 fires from the year before. Of these fires, 273,500 occurred in one- and two-family homes, including manufactured homes, accounting for 55.4 percent of all structure fires. Another 94,000 fires occurred in apartments, accounting for 19 percent of all structure fires. There were also 107,500 nonresidential structure fires in 2014, an increase of 6.5 percent from the year before.
From 1977 to 2014, the number of fires that occurred outside peaked in 1977, at 1,658,500. The number of such fires then decreased steadily, to 1,011,000 in 1983, a decrease of 39 percent. Outside fires remained relatively flat through the1980s, except for 1988 when 1,214,000 were reported. By 1993, the number of outside fires dropped to 910,500 and stayed near the 1,000,000 level for the next three years. From 1997 to 2002, the number dropped again and remained between 839,000 and 861,500, except for 1999, when it rose to 931,500. In 2005 and 2006, such fires rose to 801,000 and 840,500, respectively, before declining again, to 634,000 at the end of 2010. By 2013, outside fires dropped to a record low of 564,500. However, the number rose in 2014 to 610,500 fires, an increase of 8.1 percent.
A December 2014 fire in a town in Wyoming destroyed a large portion of the community's downtown. Photograph: AP/Wide World
Of these 610,500 fires, an estimated 290,500 were brush, grass, and forest fires, a significant increase of 14.1 percent from 2013. There were also an estimated 65,000 fires outside of structures that involved monetary value—such as crops, timber, and stored goods, but excluding vehicles—a decrease of 3 percent.
In addition to residential, nonresidential, and outside fires, there were an estimated 167,500 highway vehicle fires in 2014, an increase of 2.1 percent from the year before, and 26,000 other vehicle fires, an increase of 8.3 percent.
Civilian Fire Deaths
The 1,298,000 fires reported by fire departments in 2014 resulted in an estimated 3,275 civilian deaths, 1.1 percent more than occurred in 2013 and the highest the number has been since 2008, when 3,320 civilians died in fires.
We can better understand the nature of this increase by examining the types of properties in which the deaths occurred. In one category, highway vehicle fires, the number of deaths dropped from an estimated 320 in 2013 to an estimated 310 in 2014. These numbers exclude deaths due to trauma if the fire was not a factor in the death. Between 1980 and 2014, the number of highway vehicle deaths decreased 61 percent.
In the category of home structure fires, which occur in one- and two-family homes, including manufactured homes and apartments, however, the number of civilian deaths increased in 2014 by 0.4 percent. An estimated 2,745 civilians died in 367,500 fires. Of these deaths, 400 occurred in apartment fires, a 23.1 percent increase from the record low reported in 2013. An additional 2,345 civilians died in one- and two- family homes, a decrease of 3.5 percent, or 85 fewer deaths than 2013. Fire death rates can vary considerably from year to year, particularly for smaller communities, which suggests some caution is needed when considering the 2014 estimates.
Home fire deaths were at their peak in 1978, when 6,015 people died in such fires. Overall, the number decreased steadily from 1979 to 1982, for a substantial decrease of 20 percent by the end of 1982. From 1982 to 1988, the number of home fire deaths remained in the 4,650 to 4,950 range, except in 1984, when 4,075 people died. From 1989 to 1996, home fire deaths continued to decline, staying between 3,420 and 4,340. From 1997 onward, home fire deaths generally continued to decline, ranging from 2,380 to 3,200 deaths a year since 2001.
Overall, home fire deaths declined from 5,865 in 1977 to 2,745 in 2014, a drop of 53 percent. The number of home fires also dropped steadily over the same period, for an overall decrease of 49 percent. However, the death rate per 1,000 home fires fluctuated considerably during that period, from 8.1 in 1977 to 7.5 in 2014, for a decrease of just 7.4 percent. This suggests that, even though the number of home fires and home fire deaths declined similarly during the period, the fire death rate risk has not changed much.
Firefighters battle dense smoke at a house fire in Pennsylvania in December 2014. Photograph: AP/Wide World
In 2014, there were also 50 civilian fire deaths in other residential occupancies such as hotels, motels, dormitories, and boarding houses, for a significant increase of 66.7 percent. In addition, 65 civilians died in nonresidential structure fires, a decrease of 7.1 percent from the year before.
Of the 2,860 civilians who died in residential and non-residential structure fires, 157, or 5.5 percent, died in fires that were intentionally set.
With 2,745 home fire deaths still accounting for 84 percent of all civilian fire deaths, fire-safety initiatives targeted at the home remain the key to any reductions in the overall fire death toll. There are several major strategies for reducing the death toll in home fires. More widespread public fire safety education is needed on how to prevent fires and avoid serious injury or death if a fire occurs; information on the common causes of fatal home fires should be used in the design of fire safety education messages. People need to install and maintain smoke detectors and develop and practice escape plans. Wider use of residential sprinklers must be aggressively pursued. Additional ways must be sought to make home products safer from fire; the regulations requiring more child-resistant lighters are a good example, as are fire-safe cigarettes. Finally, the special fire safety needs of high-risk groups, such as young children, older adults, the poor, and people with disabilities, must be addressed.
Civilian Fire Injuries
In addition to the 3,275 civilians who died in fires in 2014, there were an estimated 15,775 civilian fire injuries. This is a decrease of 0.9 percent from the year before, and is the lowest the number has been since 1977–78, when NFPA began using its current survey methodology. Since civilian fire injuries are not always reported to the fire service, estimates of civilian fire injuries may be lower than actual levels. For example, many injuries occur at small fires to which fire departments do not respond, and even when fire departments do respond, they may be unaware of injured persons that they themselves did not transport to medical facilities.
Of the 15,775 civilians injured last year, an estimated 13,425 were injured in structure fires, and of those, an estimated 12,175 were injured in residential structure fires, a decrease of 3.2 percent from the previous year. Of these injuries, 8,025 occurred in one- and two-family homes and manufactured homes, and 3,800 occurred in apartments. An additional 1,250 civilians were injured in nonresidential structure fires in 2014, a decrease of 16.7 percent from the year before. In a 37.8 percent increase from 2013, 1,275 civilians were injured in highway vehicle fires.
Between 1977 and 2014, the number of civilian injuries ranged from a peak of 31,275 in 1983 to a low of 15,775 in 2014, a decrease of 50 percent. There were no apparent trends in civilian injury levels until the mid-1990s, when injuries declined roughly 5,000 in 1994–95, to 25,775. From 1996 to 2002, civilian fire injuries declined a further 28 percent, to 18,425. Between 2002 and 2013, civilian injuries ranged from 15,925 to 18,425 incidents per year. The 15,775 civilian injuries in 2014 represents a new low.
NFPA estimates that the 1,298,000 fires to which the fire service responded in 2014 caused $11.6 billion in property damage, an increase of 0.7 percent over the previous year.
Fires in structures resulted in more than $9.8 billion in property damage, an increase of 3.4 percent from 2013. Each structure fire resulted in an average property loss of $19,931, an increase of 2 percent over 2013.
From 1977 to 2014, excluding the events of September 11, 2001, the average loss per structure fire was $3,757 in 1977 and $19,931 in 2014, for an overall increase of 431 percent. When property loss is adjusted for inflation, however, the increase in the average structure fire loss between 1977 and 2014 is 35.2 percent.
Of the 2014 property loss in structures, just under $7 billion occurred in residential properties, an increase of 1 percent from the previous year. An estimated $5.8 billion of this loss occurred in one- and two-family homes, an increase of 3.9 percent. An estimated loss of $982 million also occurred in apartments. While apartment property loss decreased by 15.8 percent from the previous year, the number of fires in apartments decreased at a lower rate, for a 4.1 percent year-over-year decline.
Other property damage results for 2014 include $429 million in public assembly properties, a 16.3 percent increase; $708 million in stores and office properties, a 15.9 percent increase; slightly more than $1.1 billion in highway vehicles, a 7.7 increase; and $380 million in other vehicles, an increase of 14.5 percent. There was a significant 50.7 percent increase in special properties, to $211 million, partly due to two major fires involving properties under construction in San Francisco and Houston. Storage property damage was $781 million, a 12.9 percent increase; a major pier fire in Los Angeles was primarily responsible for this increase over the previous year.
The only category in which property loss decreased in 2014 was fires outside of structures where monetary value was involved. Property loss in this category dropped 72.9 percent, to $141 million, because no fire in 2014 reached the magnitude of the 2013 Black Forest Fire near Colorado Springs, Colorado, which resulted in an estimated $420.5 million in damage.
It is important to note that property loss totals can change significantly from year to year due to the impact of occasional large-loss fires. NFPA provides an annual analysis of such fires in the November/December issue of the NFPA Journal.
Firefighters attempt to contain a five-alarm fire at a construction site in Texas in March 2014. Photograph: AP/Wide World
Intentionally Set Fires
NFPA estimates 19,000 structure fires were intentionally set in 2014, a decrease of 15.6 percent from the year before. These fires resulted in an estimated 157 civilian deaths, an increase of 4.7 percent from the previous year, and $613 million in property loss, an increase of 6.2 percent from 2013.
In 2014, there were an estimated 8,000 intentionally set vehicle fires, 23.8 percent fewer than the year before. These fires resulted in $116 million in property loss, an increase of 34.9 percent from 2013.
Estimates of intentionally set fires do not include allocation of fires whose causes were unknown or unreported.
Description of the NFPA Survey
NFPA annually surveys a sample of U.S. public fire departments, stratified by the size of the community they protect, to project national estimates of the fire problem. All public fire departments that protect communities of 25,000 or more are included in the sample because they constitute a small number of departments that protect a large share of the total population. For departments that protect populations fewer than 25,000, a sample is selected and stratified by the size of the community protected. A total of 2,927 fire departments responded to the 2014 fire experience survey.
Our national projections are made by weighting sample results according to the proportion of total U.S. population accounted for by communities of each size. Point estimates are presented in this article, and there is a range associated with each estimate.
These results are based only on fires attended by public fire departments. No adjustments were made for unreported fires and losses, such as might occur when an occupant extinguishes the fire. Nor were adjustments made for fires attended solely by private fire brigades such as those at industrial and military installation fires, or for fires extinguished by fixed suppression systems to which no fire department responded.
The data and information included in the full “U.S. Fire Loss” report are only part of the fire loss picture. A more detailed and complete report on the overall patterns and trends of 2014, available from NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division, includes patterns by size of community and by region and size of community, as well as a more complete description of survey methodology. The full report, including additional information such as the number of fire department responses by type of call, is available online.
NFPA is grateful to the fire departments that responded to the 2014 National Fire Experience Survey for their continuing efforts to provide the data necessary to make national projections. The author also thanks the NFPA staff members who worked on this year’s survey, including Frank Deely, Justin Cronin, and Al Scott for editing the survey forms and making follow-up calls to fire departments, and Norma Candeloro, Helen Columbo, and Emily Daly for processing the survey forms. The author also acknowledges the kind help provided by Mike Karter, the author’s predecessor, in reviewing this year’s fire loss estimates. In addition, the author would like to recognize the contributions over the past several years of John “Jack” Conlon, who passed away during the early stages of this year’s project. He will be missed.