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Report: NFPA's "Electrical Fires"
Author: John R. Hall, Jr.
Issued: April 2013  

This report has sections on statistics on home and non-home structure fires involving either electrical failure or malfunction in any equipment or involving electrical distribution or lighting equipment, with separate sections for each of the major types of home electrical distribution or lighting equipment. Trends, some risk comparisons, and suggested safety tips are also included.

Executive Summary

Electrical fires
The most inclusive and direct interpretation of “electrical fire” is a fire involving some type of electrical failure or malfunction. Any equipment powered by electricity can have such a failure.

In 2011, an estimated 47,700 home structure fires reported to U.S. fire departments involved some type of electrical failure or malfunction as a factor contributing to ignition. These fires resulted in 418 civilian deaths, 1,570 civilian injuries, and $1.4 billion in direct property damage. In 2007-2011, home electrical fires represented 13% of total home structure fires, 18% of associated civilian deaths, 11% of associated civilian injuries, and 20% of associated direct property damage. 

In 2011, an estimated 16,400 non-home structure fires reported to U.S. fire departments involved some type of electrical failure or malfunction as a factor contributing to ignition. These fires resulted in 13 civilian deaths, 243 civilian injuries, and $501 million in direct property damage. In 2007-2011, non-home electrical fires represented 13% of total non-home structure fires, 5% of associated civilian deaths, 13% of associated civilian injuries, and 21% of associated direct property damage.

The national estimates in this report are derived from data reported to the U.S. Fire Administration’s National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS).  These statistics include fires reported as “confined fires,” for which detailed reporting is not required. Estimates of detailed characteristics for confined fires require statistical allocation of a large share of unknowns and so involve less confidence. 

Half (48%) of 2007-2011 reported non-confined U.S. home structure fires involving electrical failure or malfunction had some type of electrical distribution or lighting equipment as equipment involved in ignition. The leading other types of equipment involved in ignition were fan (6%), washer or dryer (6%), space heater (4%), air conditioning equipment (4%), water heater (3%), and range (3%).

Home electrical distribution or lighting equipment fires
In 2011, an estimated 21,300 reported U.S. non-confined home structure fires involving electrical distribution or lighting equipment resulted in 295 civilian deaths, 840 civilian injuries, and $822 million in direct property damage. Fires reported as confined fires would add only 2.1% to the estimated non-confined fires and less than 2% to associated losses. Therefore, they are not included in this analysis.

Home electrical distribution or lighting equipment fires declined by about one-third from 1980 to 1998. Version 5.0 of NFIRS, introduced in 1999, contained numerous changes in data categories, definitions, and rules.  After the transition period of 1999-2001, when NFIRS Version 5.0 was being phased in, the estimates settled into a level about one-half lower than the levels of the late 1990s, a much larger decline than would have been expected if the 1980-1998 trend had continued unchanged. Associated losses also showed large declines coinciding with the shift to NFIRS Version 5.0.

As with other types of equipment cited as equipment involved in ignition, all that we know from this designation is that the equipment provided the heat leading to ignition. That does not mean that there was electrical or any other type of failure or malfunction. For example, a hot light bulb might have been too close to combustibles. Such a fire would not be included in the estimates of home electrical fires but would be included in the estimates of home electrical distribution or lighting equipment fires.

Electrical distribution or lighting equipment accounted for 6% of 2007-2011 home structure fires, ranking fourth among major causes behind cooking equipment, heating equipment, and intentional. Electrical distribution or lighting equipment also accounted for 13% of associated civilian deaths (ranking behind smoking materials, heating equipment, and cooking equipment, and tied with intentional), 7% of associated civilian injuries (ranking fourth), and 11% of associated direct property damage (ranking fourth).

Wiring and related equipment accounted for the largest share (63%) of 2007-2011 home structure fires involving electrical distribution or lighting equipment, followed by lamps, light fixtures, and light bulbs (20%), cords and plugs (11%), and transformers and power supplies (6%). Cords and plugs accounted for larger shares of civilian deaths (30%) and injuries (21%) than of fire incidents (11%) associated with home electrical distribution or lighting equipment fires.

Three-fourths (74%) of 2007-2011 home structure fires involving electrical distribution or lighting equipment cited some type of electrical failure or malfunction as a factor contributing to ignition.

The majority of 2007-2011 home structure fires involving electrical distribution or lighting equipment began with ignition of products and materials often found in structural areas, including wire or cable insulation (32%), structural member or framing (16%), insulation within structural area (6%), and exterior wall covering (5%).

Nearly half (44%) of deaths in 2007-2011 home structure fires involving electrical distribution or lighting equipment resulted from fires that began in a living room, family room, or den (23%) or bedroom (21%).

Nearly two-thirds (64%) of deaths in 2007-2011 home structure fires involving electrical distribution or lighting equipment involved victims who were outside the area of origin when injured. By comparison 47% of fatal victims for all home structure fires were outside the area of origin when injured. 

Home structure fires involving electrical distribution or lighting equipment, in 2007-2011, show a winter peak similar to that for heating equipment but less pronounced.

Based on special reports by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, analyzing data from the death certificate data base, in 1999 to 2011, 58 people died per year of injuries from unvented carbon monoxide from generators. Generators are the only electrical distribution or lighting equipment that burn fuel, which makes them the only electrical distribution or lighting equipment that generates carbon monoxide.

Halogen lights have a higher risk of fire than incandescent lights, which have a higher risk than fluorescent lights. Compact fluorescent lights now account for more than two-thirds of all fluorescent lights in residential usage. Incandescent lights are due to be phased out in favor of fluorescent lights, but as of 2010, incandescent lights still outnumbered fluorescent lights by nearly 2-to-1 in residential usage.

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