Five men were killed when fire ripped through this Texas homeless shelter. (Photo: AP/Wide World)
Catastrophic Multiple-Death Fires in 2009
Last year’s 103 deaths in such fires is the lowest number ever recorded
NFPA Journal®, September/October 2010
By Stephen G. Badger
Read the full list of 2009 Multiple-Death Fire Incidents
Get NFPA's 2009 Multiple Fire Death report
Although the first catastrophic multiple-death fire of 2009 occurred on New Year’s Day, the year ended with the second-lowest number of such fires in the past 10 years.
Shortly after seven that morning, the fire department received multiple calls for a house fire with people still inside. At the time, there were nine occupants in the home. Upon arrival, firefighters found the basement of the two-story home engulfed in fire, with heavy smoke and fire throughout the rest of the home. Several people were trapped inside and on the front porch roof. First-arriving firefighters raced inside to attempt rescues and others raised ladders to rescue those trapped on the porch roof. The fire, which was later determined to have been caused by an electrical malfunction in recessed lighting in the basement, spread rapidly throughout the balloon-frame home. The house was equipped with smoke alarms, but it was not reported if they activated. Six occupants were killed and the other three suffered non-life threatening injuries.
According to the “U.S. Fire Loss for 2009” report, firefighters in the United States responded to an estimated 1,348,500 fires in 2009, 377,000 of which were in residential structures, 103,500 in non-residential structures, and 868,000 outside of structures. These fires accounted for an estimated 3,010 deaths, 2,590 of which occurred in residential structures, 105 in non-residential structures, and 315 in fires outside of structures.
Twenty-one of the fires were categorized as catastrophic multiple-death fires, defined here as a fire or explosion in a home or apartment with five or more fire-related deaths; or a fire or explosion in all other structures, as well as outside of structures (such as wildfires and vehicle fires), that claimed three or more lives. These 21 fires accounted for 103 fire deaths, including 26 children under the age of six, and three contract firefighters. These fires accounted for .002 percent of the total estimated fires and 3.4 percent of the total fire deaths for 2009.
By comparison, there were 19 catastrophic multiple-death fires in 2008, resulting in 114 deaths, including 26 children under age six.
The total of 21 fires in 2009 is the second-lowest number of catastrophic multiple-death fires in the past 10 years (2000 through 2009), with the 103 deaths the lowest number ever in catastrophic multiple-death fires, according to NFPA’s records. The 2009 total of 21 fires was 11 fires fewer than the 10-year average, and the 103 deaths were 82 deaths below the average over the same period. (This does not include the death toll from the September 11, 2001, terrorist actions in New York City and Washington, D.C.)Catastrophic residential structure fires
As in past years, the largest share of multiple-death fires occurred in residential structures. There were 10 such fires in these properties in 2009, with nine in single-family homes—four of which were manufactured homes—and one in an apartment building (though the number of units was not reported). These accounted for almost 48 percent of the fires. The 10 residential fires in 2009 was down from 16 in this category in 2008.
There were 59 deaths in catastrophic residential multiple-death fires in 2009, down from 79 deaths in 2008. Of the 59 deaths, 25 were children under six years old. This was one fewer than in 2008.
All but one of the fires broke out between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., resulting in 53 of the deaths, or almost 90 percent, including all but one of the children under age six.
Catastrophic non-residential structure fires
Five of the 21 fires broke out in non-residential structures: two in manufacturing properties, and one each in a homeless shelter, a group home, and a boarding house. In 2008, there were three fires in the non-residential category. The manufacturing properties were a refinery gasoline storage tank and a food preparation plant; both involved explosions followed by fire. These explosions and fires accounted for 20 of the 103 deaths, the same number of deaths as in 2008. None of the victims were children under age six. Two of these fires occurred between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. Four of the properties were operating; the status of the fifth was not reported. Causes were reported for just two of the fires; one was incendiary and one involved a cutting torch.
Catastrophic non-structural fires
There were six non-structural incidents: two in passenger vehicle crashes and fires, and one each in a box truck with fireworks (explosion/fire), a motor home, a wildland fire, and an aircraft with a fire on board prior to crashing. This is three more than in 2008. These fires killed 21 people, with one victim under age six. This is six fewer deaths than were reported in this category in 2008.
Vehicle crashes are included in this study if a fire in the vehicle caused the crash or if the local coroner or medical examiner confirms that the victims died of fire-related injuries, not impact injuries.
The role of smoke detection and suppression equipment
Of the 10 residential structure fires, only six had information available on automatic smoke detection equipment. Of the six, only three structures were equipped with smoke alarms. Of the three, only one system operated, one didn’t operate, and the operation of the third was not known. It was not reported why the occupants in the home that contained operational smoke alarms failed to evacuate. Three structures had no smoke alarms. In these fires, 18 people died, including nine children under age six.
There was no suppression equipment in the residential properties.
Information on detection equipment was reported for three of the five non-residential structures. One structure had no equipment. One structure, a board-and-care facility, had smoke alarms in the sleeping areas and heat detectors in the kitchen, basement, and attic. The smoke alarms operated and alerted the residents. One structure had a smoke alarm system with unreported coverage that also operated, but was ineffective due to an explosion prior to the fire.
Four of the properties reported information on automatic suppression equipment. Two had no suppression system. One structure had suppression equipment that was destroyed in the explosion. One structure had a wet pipe system; two heads activated, but were ineffective because the fire began on the exterior and was well-developed by the time it entered the area that was protected by sprinklers.
Smoke alarms have been proven effective in reducing the risk of death in home fires. The most effective arrangement is to use interconnected multiple-station smoke alarms that are supplied by hard-wired AC power with a battery backup. These should be located outside each sleeping area, on each level, and in each bedroom.
Homeowners should routinely test smoke alarms according to manufacturers’ recommendations. NFPA recommends testing residential smoke alarms at least monthly. Batteries should also be replaced according to manufacturers’ recommendations; conventional batteries should be replaced at least yearly. If an alarm “chirps,” a warning that the battery is low, the battery should be replaced right away. All smoke alarms, including alarms that use 10-year batteries and hard-wired alarms, should be replaced when they are 10 years old, or sooner if they do not respond properly when tested.
Smoke alarms are only effective if occupants exit the building when the alarms sound. Children should be familiar with the sound of a properly operating smoke alarm. They should follow a practiced escape plan, one that emphasizes two exits from any location as well as a designated meeting place once they have evacuated the structure. Exit drills in the home are an important part of many school curricula. Practicing the plan helps families determine if children and others readily waken to the sound of a smoke alarm if it sounds during nighttime hours, and that, along with assistance for family members who require it, can be factored into the plan. Practicing escape plans, as well as basic fire prevention principles, might have prevented many of the fires and deaths included in this report.
Where we get our data
NFPA obtains its data by reviewing national and local news media, including fire service publications. A news clipping service reads all daily U.S. newspapers and notifies the NFPA Fire Analysis and Research Division of catastrophic fires. Once an incident has been identified, we request information from the local fire department or the authority having jurisdiction. NFPA’s annual survey of U.S. fire experience and mailings to state fire marshals are additional data sources, though not principal ones. We also contact federal agencies that have participated in investigating such fires. The diversity and redundancy of these sources enable us to collect the most complete data available on catastrophic fires in the United States. We understand that in many cases, due to ongoing litigation, a department cannot release information. Also, in some cases departments have been unable to determine the information we request.
NFPA wishes to thank the U.S. fire service and medical examiners for their contributions of data, without which this report would not be possible. The author extends a special thanks to Norma Candeloro and to his co-workers for their guidance in the completion of this report.
Stephen G. Badger is a fire data assistant in NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division and is retired from the Quincy, Massachusetts, Fire Department.