Home Fires Involving Heating Equipment
By John R. Hall, Jr.
In 2008, heating equipment was involved in an estimated 66,100 reported U.S. home structure fires, with associated losses of 480 civilian deaths, 1,660 civilian injuries, and $1.1 billion in direct property damage. “Homes” refers to one- and two-family homes, including manufactured homes, and apartments, including townhouses.
The estimated home heating fire total was 0.5 percent lower than it was in 2007 and 72 percent lower than it was in 1980.
Associated deaths were down 17 percent from 2007 and 53 percent from 1980. Associated civilian injuries were down by 10 percent compared to 2007 and by 53 percent compared to1980. Direct property damage adjusted for inflation was up by 79 percent from the record low in 2007 but down by 46 percent from 1980. Overall, these incidents accounted for 17 percent of all reported home fires, 17 percent of home fire deaths, 13 percent of home civilian injuries, and 13 percent of the direct property damage resulting from home fires.
Fixed and portable space heaters, excluding fireplaces, chimneys, and chimney connectors but including wood stoves, accounted for 32 percent of reported 2004–2008 U.S. home heating fires; 82 percent of associated civilian deaths; 64 percent of associated civilian injuries; and 51 percent of associated direct property damage.
A conservative best estimate of creosote fires would combine failure-to-clean fires confined to the chimney or flue or would involve solid-fueled space heaters, fireplaces, chimneys, and chimney connectors. This produces estimates of 15,200 reported creosote fires, or 23 percent of all home heating fires, per year with associated losses of 4 civilian deaths, 17 civilian injuries, and $33 million in direct property damage per year.
The leading factors contributing to ignition in home heating equipment fires were failure to clean, heat sources too close to combustibles, and unclassified mechanical failure or malfunction. Heat sources too close to combustibles accounted for 52 percent of associated deaths.
The leading items first ignited for such fires were unclassified items, flammable or combustible gases or liquids, structural members or framing, and unclassified organic materials. Comparisons of fuel or power options in central heating equipment do not show any types to be clearly better or worse for all types of loss.
Space heaters result in far more fires and losses than central heating devices and present higher risks relative to use. Among central heating equipment, gas-fueled units show a higher rate of civilian fire deaths per user household. However, low usage of some equipment means that the rankings could change or reverse with changes of only a few deaths a year in the average death tolls for each fuel or power type.
Liquid-fueled units present the highest risk of fires and property damage, while electric-powered units have the highest risk of civilian injuries.
Among space heating equipment, portable and fixed electric-powered devices have very different levels of risk. Portable electric, liquid-fueled, and solid-fueled devices all present similar risks on all measures, while risks for fixed electric and gas-fueled devices are usually lower.
Water heaters show very large differences, with gas-fueled equipment showing higher rates per million population than electric-powered equipment for fires at 88 versus 48; civilian fire deaths at 0.7 versus 0.1; civilian fire injuries at 4.8 versus 0.9; and direct property damage at $1.8 versus $0.4.
Thirty-five percent of home heating fires were reported as confined to chimney or flue, and another 23 percent as confined to fuel burner or boiler.
Home heating fires peak mid-morning and mid-evening. They are less common between 1 to 6 a.m. This could reflect the practice of turning down the heat overnight and relying less on heating equipment in the middle of the day, when occupants are least likely to be at home. It also reflects the fact that sleeping occupants are not interacting with the equipment, which is how fires begin.
Gas-fueled heating devices, particularly space heaters, pose a higher risk of death due to non-fire carbon monoxide poisoning, accounting for 65 of 74 deaths per year involving carbon monoxide poisoning by home heating equipment in 2002–2006. In 1998, 2000, 2001, and 2003, there were also 2.5 electrocution deaths per year involving electric water heaters and 1.8 electrocution deaths per year involving electric furnaces. Heating equipment accounted for 58,660 injuries, not limited to fire or burns, reported to hospital emergency rooms in 2009.
U.S. Experience with Sprinklers and Other Automatic Fire Extinguishing Equipment
By John R. Hall, Jr.
Automatic sprinklers are highly effective and reliable elements of total system designs for fire protection in buildings. Sprinklers operated in 91 percent of all reported structure fires large enough to activate sprinklers, excluding buildings under construction and buildings without sprinklers in the fire area. When sprinklers operate, they are effective 96 percent of the time, resulting in a combined performance of operating effectively in 87 percent of all reported fires where sprinklers were present in the fire area and the fire was large enough to activate them.
The combined performance for wet-pipe sprinklers is 88 percent, while the combined performance for dry-pipe sprinklers is only 74 percent. By comparison, the combined performance for dry chemical systems is 42 percent. In homes, including apartments, wet-pipe sprinklers operated effectively 92 percent of the time.
These statistics exclude buildings under construction and cases of failure or ineffectiveness due to a lack of sprinklers in the fire area and, after some recoding, between failure and ineffectiveness based on reasons given.
When wet-pipe sprinklers are present in structures that are not under construction and excluding failure or ineffectiveness due to of a lack of sprinklers in the fire area, the death rate per 1,000 reported home structure fires is 83 percent lower and the rate of property damage per reported fire is lower by 34 to 77 percent for most properties. In homes, including apartments, wet-pipe sprinklers were associated with a 71 percent lower average loss per fire.
When sprinklers of any type are present in structures that are not under construction and excluding cases of failure or ineffectiveness because of a lack of sprinklers in the fire area, flame damage in 95 percent of reported structure fires is confined to the room of origin, compared to 73 percent when no automatic extinguishing equipment is present.
Of reported 2004–2008 structure fires in health-care properties, an estimated 57 percent showed sprinklers present, with higher percentages for hospitals and nursing homes, and a much lower percentage for clinics and doctor’s offices.
Sprinklers were also reported as present in half or more of all reported fires in laboratories, manufacturing facilities, and theaters. In every other property, more than half of all reported fires had no sprinklers.
The few surveys that have been done of sprinkler presence in general have found that, in most property groups, the percentage of buildings with sprinklers is much higher than the percentage of reported fires with sprinklers present.
Sprinklers apparently are still rare in many places where people are most exposed to fire, including educational properties, offices, most stores, and homes, where most fire deaths occur. There is considerable potential for expanded use of sprinklers to reduce the loss of life and property to fire.
When sprinklers fail to operate, the reason most often given was shutoff of the system before fire began. Other leading reasons were manual intervention that defeated the system, lack of maintenance, and inappropriate system for the type of fire. Only 5 percent of sprinkler failures were attributed to component damage.
When sprinklers operate but are ineffective, the reason usually had to do with an insufficiency of water applied to the fire, either because water did not reach the fire, as happened in 44 percent of cases, or because not enough water was released, as happened in 27 percent of cases. Other leading reasons were system component damage, lack of maintenance, manual intervention that defeated the system, and inappropriate system for the type of fire.
When people die in spite of the operation of wet-pipe sprinklers, they often had special vulnerabilities that are less often found with fatalities of home fires in general. For example, 90 percent were located in the area of fire origin, where they could have suffered fatal injuries before sprinkler activation, compared to 52 percent of fatalities in fires in which no automatic extinguishing equipment was present.
In addition, the clothing of 25 percent of fatalities in home fires in which wet-pipe sprinklers operated ignited, compared to 8 percent of fatalities when no automatic extinguishing equipment was present. Sixty-five percent of fatalities in home fires in which wet-pipe sprinklers operated were 65 or older, compared to 28 percent when no automatic extinguishing equipment was present. And 34 percent of fatalities in home fires in which wet-pipe sprinklers operated returned to the fire after escaping, were unable to act, or acted irrationally, compared to 20 percent of fatalities when no automatic extinguishing equipment was present.
Sprinkler systems are designed to activate early in a fire but not to activate in a nonfire situation. Each sprinkler reacts only to the fire conditions in its area. Water release in a fire is generally much less than would occur if the fire department had to suppress the fire, because later action means more fire, which means more water is needed.
The Smoking-Material Fire Problem
By John R. Hall, Jr.
In 2008, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated 114,800 smoking-material fires in the United States, down from 140,700 in 2007. These fires resulted in an estimated 680 civilian deaths, 1,520 civilian injuries, and $737 million in direct property damage. Deaths and injuries were down from the year before. In 2008, an estimated 18,400 smoking-material home fires caused 620 civilian deaths, or 23 percent of all home structure fire deaths; 1,250 civilian injuries; and $512 million in property damage.
“Smoking materials” are lighted tobacco products, not lighting implements such as matches and lighters. Smoking materials are identified under heat source, and estimates include a share of fires coded as heat source unknown or as unknown between smoking material and open flames.
The long-term trend in smoking-material fires has been down, by 66 percent from 1980 to 2008, helped by the decline in smoking and by the effect of standards and regulations that have made mattresses and upholstered furniture more resistant to cigarette ignition.
A simple projection linking the percentage decline in fires or fire deaths to the percentage of smokers covered would suggest that when the fire-safe cigarette law is fully effective across the United States in late 2012, the reduction in fires should reach 50 to 70 percent and the reduction in fire deaths should reach 56 to 77 percent, both relative to levels in 2003, the last year before the fire-safe cigarette law was effective in any state.
Mattresses and bedding, upholstered furniture, and trash are the items most commonly ignited in smoking-material home fires. Excluding trash, these items also account for most associated fire deaths. Roughly equal shares of civilian deaths due to smoking-material fires involved fires that started in living rooms, family rooms, and dens, which accounted for 33 percent, as in bedrooms, which accounted for 36 percent.
One out of four fatalities in smoking-material fires is not the smoker whose cigarette started the fire.
The risk of dying in a home structure fire caused by smoking materials rises with age. Two out of five, or 39 percent of, victims of fatal home smoking-material fires were 65 or older, compared to their 12 percent share of the population. Adults age 65 and over are less likely to smoke than younger adults. Therefore, their high rates of smoking-material fire deaths per million people are even more noteworthy.
Canada and all U.S. states have passed laws or other requirements that all cigarettes sold must be “fire safe”—that is, have sharply reduced ignition strength, as determined by ASTM Standard E2187-04.
The first state to adopt a fire-safe cigarette requirement was New York, which passed the law at the end of 2003 and used 2004 to implement it, giving wholesalers and retailers time to clear their inventories of older, noncompliant cigarettes.
Smoking material fire deaths averaged 43 per year in 2000–2002, the last three years before action began on the bill, and averaged 25 per year in 2006–2008, the three years after any lingering transitional effects. This implies a 41 percent reduction. If all four years 2005–2008 after the official implementation period are analyzed, the average was 27 deaths per year, and the reduction was 37 percent.
At the beginning of 2008, eight states had reached the effective date for their fire-safe cigarette law. By the end of 2008, another 10 states reached their effective dates. If weights are applied to reflect the fraction of the year when each state’s law was effective, the results indicate that, on average in 2008, 29 percent of U.S. smokers were in states with the laws in effect. If one allows for a three-month period to sell off inventories of cigarettes made before the effective date, the average drops to 25 percent. If a six-month period is used, the average drops to 21 percent.