Author(s): Kathleen Almand. Published on January 4, 2016.

Best Behaviors

The need to expand research on human behavior in fire
safety and prevention.
BY KATHLEEN H. ALMAND

A great deal of research has been done on human behavior in fire. Much of that work has traditionally focused on egress design—how people behave in an emergency and how buildings can be designed to reflect those behaviors. But there are many other aspects of human behavior impacting fire prevention and fire safety that we need to address in our research programs.

As the fire and public health communities become more entwined, and as the fire service embraces a growing role in emergency medical response, the research community is trying to learn more about how the health world addresses behavioral influences on public health. For example, why do some individuals embrace behavioral change and others do not? What can other public health fields teach us about the effectiveness of safety messaging on children or aging populations?

These are the kinds of questions we are beginning to explore. In November, NFPA and the Fire Protection Research Foundation (FPRF) held a summit to explore emerging safety concerns around independent living for our aging population. The “Summit on Safe, Independent Living: Home Health Care, Aging Populations, and the Residential Environment,” held in Orlando, Florida, had much to discuss, including emerging trends for aging in place, the challenges associated with healthcare equipment in the home, and emergency services and home health—all topics that are covered in the healthcare focus of this issue of NFPA Journal.

We have also taken a first research step in this area. NFPA and the FPRF, in collaboration with the University of Iowa Injury Prevention Research Center, are working on a research program to measure the effectiveness of the messaging in NFPA’s Remembering When™ public education program, which focuses on fire and fall safety for older adults. Using research techniques developed in the medical and health fields, the research will compare safety behaviors of older adults who have received safety messages through different delivery mechanisms. The findings from this study will provide information on the messages that work best, along with most effective types of message delivery, such as home visits versus classroom programs. The study, to be published in early 2016, will have another important outcome, which will be to demonstrate how utilizing the resources and approaches of the public health community can help us address human behavior in fire emergencies.

There is much to do. NFPA and the FPRF, with input from stakeholders in both the public health and fire science communities, have developed a preliminary research agenda identifying knowledge gaps related to human behavior and fire for at-risk populations, especially in home environments, which is where the overwhelming majority of fire deaths take place. Our questions are wide-ranging: Do adults who exhibit unsafe behaviors in fire situations also demonstrate unsafe behaviors in other aspects of their lives? How can we change those behaviors? Why are some communities more safety oriented than others? Do kids remember their safety training when they reach the age to make their own decisions? Do messages delivered via new technologies have a different impact than those delivered with legacy technology?

All of these questions are relevant for addressing both fire and public health risks, and they will help shape our way forward.

​KATHLEEN H. ALMAND, P.E., FSFPE, is vice president, Research, at NFPA. Top Photograph: Shutterstock.