Physical disability as a factor in home fire deaths

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Report: NFPA's "Physical Disability as a Factor in Home Fire Deaths"
Marty Ahrens
Issued: June 2014

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.

Executive Summary

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, in 2008-2012, 7% of the people at least five years of age living in the community had some type of ambulatory disability,   defined as “having serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs.” Such disability can delay or prevent an individual from escaping a fire.  

NFPA estimates that physical disability was identified as a contributing factor in an estimated average of 400, or 15%, of U.S. home fire deaths per year during 2007-2011.  

Providing adequate fire safety for individuals with physical disabilities can be challenging, particularly in cases of severe mobility limitations. Detection requirements consider the time a typical person needs to leave the building. If an individual cannot move out of danger, a working smoke alarm provides less benefit.  In rare cases, particularly when an individual is already in poor health and in the immediate area of the fire origin, fatal injury may occur before a sprinkler operates.  

In most cases, however, sprinklers reduce the intensity of the fire and the danger even when an individual cannot fully evacuate. In 2012, NFPA Journal writer Kenneth Tremblay described a Florida fire in which an operating sprinkler saved the life of a 50-year-old woman who used a wheelchair in a 13-story apartment building primarily for older adults. The woman’s discarded cigarette ignited her sofa and spread to the adjacent paneling. A single sprinkler controlled the fire until firefighters could extinguish it completely. While the woman suffered severe burns, she did survive.

In this analysis, national estimates derived from the U.S. Fire Administration’s National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) and NFPA’s annual fire department experience survey are used to show the causes and circumstances of home fire deaths of victims when physical disability was a factor and highlight differences from overall home fire deaths. The NFIRS Complete Reference Guide notes that “physically disabled” includes temporary conditions, but it does not indicate if sensory disabilities should be included. Although the overall numbers may not capture disabilities that were not obvious, this information can help people with disabilities and those who work with or care for them to develop and communicate ways to better protect this community from fire.

Compared to all home fire victims, victims with physical disabilities were more likely to be female and at least 65 years of age. Fifty-one percent of these victims were female. Fifty-six percent of all home fire victims were male. When physical disability was a factor, three of every five (60%) victims were at least 65 years old compared to 30% of all home fire fatalities.

While home fire deaths in general are much more common between midnight and 6:00 a.m., time patterns were less pronounced when physical disability was a factor

More than half (55%) of these deaths resulted from home fires with operating smoke alarms compared to only 40% of home fire deaths overall.  

Home fires with disability as a factor