AUTHOR: Birgitte Messerschmidt

A house burning

America Burning: Honoring the Anniversary of the Release of a Landmark Report

Much has changed in the nearly five decades since the pivotal America Burning report was issued in 1973 and revisited in 1980. Today, as we honor the anniversary of the report’s initial release, we’d like to share some information about a recent Fire Protection Research Foundation report, Fire in the United States Since 1980, Through the Lens of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem, that examines the current state of fire safety in the U.S. -- where progress has been made and what needs to be done today. The number of fires and fire deaths in the United States has reduced dramatically and that progress has unfortunately led to fire safety taking a back seat to other societal concerns that seem more pressing. To understand the headway that has been made and the challenges that remain, NFPA commissioned the Fire Protection Research Foundation, the association’s affiliate, to examine the current state of fire safety in the United States. The new seminal report, Fire in the United States Since 1980, Through the Lens of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem, is expected to be a key document with valuable insights that will help to advance fire and life safety. The report references success in several occupancies such as hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and hotels and really zeroes in on residential fires because they account for the largest share of reported structure fires and most of the civilian fire deaths and injuries. And although there have been fewer fires in the U.S. than in past decades, statistically, if a home fire is reported, occupants are more likely to die today than 40 years ago. In fact, research shows that: Every 24 seconds, a US fire department responds to a fire somewhere in the country Nationwide, a civilian dies in a fire every  3 hours and 10 minutes In the US, a home fire injury occurs every 43 minutes The 63-page Fire in the United States Since 1980, Through the Lens of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem report shows, in part, that: The most successful recipe for fire safety in the built environment has been the implementation of fire safety technologies through mandated codes and standards NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem™ elements – government responsibility, development and use of current codes, and an informed public – have had an obvious impact on the fire experience Approaching fire safety as a system, and not individual bits and pieces, provides an opportunity to unravel the complex and ongoing fire safety challenge for society Smoke alarms are a huge success story Cooking remains the leading cause of home fires and injuries Smoking has the been the leading cause of home fire deaths for roughly four decades Fire deaths of children under fire have dramatically declined, but there has been little change in older adult death tolls States with higher fire death rates correlate with larger percentages of people who have a disability; are current smokers; have incomes below the poverty line; live in rural areas; or are either African American, Black, Native American, or Alaskan Native Wildfire is becoming the dominant type of fire that causes catastrophic multiple deaths as well as large losses The new study analyzed fire data and other research from the past 40 years to provide a snapshot of what has influenced safety. Additionally, catastrophic multiple-death fires and fires in the wildland/urban interface (WUI) were looked at because they have the potential to cause significant human loss. As the report name suggests, the new benchmark research was conducted with the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem in mind. NFPA introduced the Ecosystem in 2018 so that professionals, practitioners, and the public had a framework that identified the key elements that play a critical role in fire, life, and electrical safety. The eight components are government responsibility, development and use of current codes, referenced standards, investment in safety, a skilled workforce, code compliance, preparedness and emergency response, and an informed public. When all the Ecosystem elements work together, the result is a fully functioning system that can benefit everyone. If one or more of the components fails, the system breaks down and tragedies can occur. To download the full report today, visit here and be sure to check nfpa.org/fireprogress for related content and resources in the months to come.
A collage of fire victims

Who dies in fatal home fires?

According to the new NFPA report, Home Fire Victims by Age and Gender, the risk of home fire death and fire injury varies by age, gender, and cause of fire. During 2015–2019, an estimated average of 2,620 civilians died and 11,070 were injured in reported home fires annually, accounting for 75 percent of the total civilian fire deaths and 72 percent of civilian fire injuries (the remaining deaths and injuries did not occur in homes). The majority of home fire victims were male (57 percent of the deaths and 55 percent of the injuries). More than one-third (37 percent) of the fatalities were 65 or older. Only 17 percent of the non-fatally injured were in that age group. The largest number of deaths (20 percent) in a single age group was among people 55 through 64 years old. Thirteen percent of the population was in that age group. Children under 15 accounted for 11 percent of the home fire fatalities and 9 percent of the injuries. Children under five accounted for only 5 percent of the deaths and 4 percent of the injuries. Three-quarters (74 percent) of the 150 people who died in home fires that began with clothing ignitions were at least 55 years of age. Only 6 percent were under 15. While smoking materials were the leading cause of home fire deaths overall, this was true only for people in the 55-84 age groups. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of the victims of fatal smoking material fires were in the area of origin when the fire occurred. Three of every five (61 percent) were in the area and involved in ignition. Thirty-five percent of the smoking fire fatalities had been sleeping and 17 percent had been unable to act. Cooking is the leading cause of non-fatal home fire injuries throughout life. Eight percent of the civilians who died and half (52 percent) of the civilians non-fatally injured in home cooking fires were hurt while trying to control the fire themselves. Only one-third (32 percent) of the cooking fire fatalities had been in the area of origin when the fire started. Cooking was the leading cause of fire death among adults 85 and older. Males had twice the risk of females of dying in an intentionally set home fire. Nearly half (46 percent) of all victims of intentionally set home fires were acting irrationally when fatally injured. According to death certificate data, 64 percent of all intentional fire or flame deaths in 2015–2019 (including non-home fires) were suicides. Three of every five fatal candle fire victims (59 percent) were female, as were 55 percent of the non-fatally injured. Almost three of every five victims of fatal candle fires (57 percent) were at least 55 years old. Learn more about the characteristics of home fire victims.
The world

As populations grow and new hazards emerge, an understanding of global trends and research can help us chart the course

More people living on the planet creates pressure, on so many levels, in society. Fire and life safety is one of those pressures. Some fire safety challenges are directly related to the increase in population and urbanization, while others stem from our desire to mitigate the impact of having more humans on the planet. Population  growth overall has precipitated an upward shift in the number of people living in urban areas. In fact, the UN estimates that the world’s population living in urban settlements will increase to 60 percent by 2030 with one in every three people opting to reside in cities that have at least half a million inhabitants. Furthermore, it is projected that 2.5 billion will be added to the world’s urban population by 2050, with almost 90 percent of this growth happening in Asia and Africa. The magnitude of this population growth puts enormous pressure on our built environment and has already spurred the construction of more tall buildings and denser cities. As population grows, it is important that we mitigate the impact we have on our planet by ensuring that current and future development is done in a sustainable way. This shift has resulted in significant changes to our built environment in recent decades, and has ushered in new products, alternative energy sources, unique energy storage solutions, and the use of more lightweight materials with higher levels of insulation. The need for sustainability and energy efficiency is clear but unfortunately prioritizing the impact on our fire and life safety in the process is less so. We continue to see solutions developed with sustainability and/or energy efficiency in mind but fire and life safety components for these technologies are not being adequately explored. Need some examples? Just think about the dramatic fires we have seen running up the facades of high-rise buildings in the last decade. Or explosions in modern energy storage systems. How about the car fires that are challenging parking garage structures? And don’t forget the fires caused or complicated by the integration of photovoltaic panels on our buildings. While fire and life safety should always be at the forefront, we must also choose solutions that are sustainable for the long haul. When identifying and implementing new fire protection solutions, it is most critical to avoid any “substitution regret”. Aqueous Film Forming Foams (AFFF) are an example of a solution, which had been used as dominant Class B firefighting foams for decades, and eventually were found to have an adverse environmental impact due to its chemical composition. Today, replacements foams and agents are tested and studied for its effectiveness to satisfy the immediate needs, as well as the long-term safety of all involved. To complicate matters further,  life safety challenges are often most prominent in areas where income levels are lower. So, with rapid growth in cities, it is inevitable that there will be insufficient affordable housing thus prompting larger numbers of people to live in informal settlements where housing may not comply with planning, building, and safety regulations. It is tempting to dismiss this as a systemic issue in low- and middle-income countries but the fact is that low income areas exists in all countries, including the United States, and are often where the fire problem is the most significant. If we want to eliminate the fire problem, we simply cannot ignore its impact in low-income areas. Reading all this, one can easily get discouraged and think that we will never be able to eliminate the fire problem. But do not despair, because researchers have been working on all the issues mentioned above and more, so that we can continue to come up with solutions that will help us to improve safety. Join us for the Global Trends and Research program on November 2nd, part of the NFPA 125th Anniversary Conference Series, so that you can learn from leading researchers and professionals from around the world about the work being done to keep global citizens safe from persistent problems and emerging hazards.

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