WHEN I STARTED MY CAREER IN THE FIRE SERVICE in 1983, I learned how to fight fires, extricate people from car wrecks and submerged vehicles, and provide life support. Community fire risk reduction was not part of the fire service curriculum.
Later, I began to realize how fire affected some people more than others, including older adults who were dying in fires at a higher rate than the general population. But it wasn’t until 1995, when I joined the fire prevention division of my fire department in Miami-Dade County, Florida, that it all came together. I understood how code compliance, coupled with public education, could reduce community risk. I began to study the issue of older adults and fire, and I implemented a program to distribute and install smoke alarms in their homes.
I became a member of NFPA and began participating in the organization’s high-risk community outreach initiatives, where I learned more about the fire problem among older adults. According to NFPA statistics, while the number of home fire deaths decreased between 1980 and 2007, the share of home fire victims age 65 and over increased during that period, from 19 percent to 29 percent. That trend will likely continue as the country’s aging population grows over the next few decades. According to forecasts developed by the U.S. Census Bureau, people 65 years or older are expected to comprise 19 percent of the population by 2030, compared to just under 14 percent in 2012.
I began to worry about my own parents’ increased fire risk as they became affected by the infirmities of age. I made sure that they had the right smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. But my worries did not end there. My father’s memory is failing, and my mother is mobility impaired. They both take sleep aids before going to bed. Even if they are properly warned by a smoke alarm, they may not have the time they need to escape from their home during a fire.
In May, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) issued its fiscal year report to Congress. The document, Impact of an Aging Population on Fire and Emergency Medical Services (PDF, 213 kb), explains that fire and emergency medical services will have to find a way to meet the increased demand for services for older adults, which the report describes as being at a “much higher fire risk than the rest of the population.”
FEMA’s recommendations to reduce that risk include increasing educational outreach, integrating new smoke alarm technologies in model codes for homes, and more. It describes installing fire sprinklers as “the most effective fire safety feature that can be added to a home.”
According to AARP, older Americans consistently express a desire to age in place — meaning in their homes — and there are numerous initiatives for home design to accommodate this. But I have not found one that takes fire risk into consideration or recommends the installation of fire sprinklers.
It is imperative that life safety professionals engage those setting public policy and designing and building homes for the older population in issues of fire safety. We need to educate them about the importance of home fire sprinklers so that this technology can be included in aging-in-place initiatives. Millions of aging Americans deserve to enjoy the rest of their lives in new homes fully protected by this national model code requirement.
Maria Figueroa is communications project manager for NFPA’s Fire Sprinkler Initiative.