Report: NFPA's "Physical Disability as a Factor in Home Fire Deaths"
Author: Ben Evarts
Issued: May 2011
This report examines fire circumstances and victim characteristics when physical disability was cited as a factor contributing to fatal injury and compared these circumstances and characteristics with those found in home fire deaths overall. Previously published incident descriptions are also included.
The American Community Survey found that 9% of U.S. residents who lived in the community in 2005-2007 and were at least five years old had some type of long lasting physical disability that restricted mobility, reaching, lifting, or carrying. These disabilities can make it difficult or impossible for an individual to escape a fire independently. Twenty-one percent of the people with physical disabilities had incomes below the poverty line. This lack of income makes it less likely they will be able to afford specialized safety equipment or pay attendants. Four percent of the surveyed population had some type of sensory impairment, including vision and hearing impairments. These individuals may not hear a smoke alarm or oral communication or be able to read printed instructions.
During 2004-2008, physical disability was identified as a contributing factor in an estimated average of 380, or 14%, of U.S. home fire deaths per year. If all the people with physical disabilities in the general population and among fire victims (aged 5 and older) were identified and the definitions of physical disability used were comparable, then people with physical disabilities had a home fire death rate in 2004-2008 of 15 deaths per million. This rate is 1.6 times the nine deaths per million population from all home fires and assumes the 2005-2007 population with disabilities would be comparable to the population in 2004-2008. It is very likely that some victims with physical disabilities were missed because those disabilities were not readily observable (e.g., no wheelchair or other device as evidence of disability). If the estimated number of victims was missing a larger share of people who actually had a physical disability than the American Community Survey’s estimate of the disabled population missed, as this logic would suggest, then the 15 deaths per million population would be an underestimate. It stands to reason that the true death rate for physically disabled exceeds the general population death rate by an even larger margin. It is unclear whether fire victims with sensory disabilities were coded as having a physical disability as sensory disability was not mentioned specifically.