Addressing the Home Fire Death Conundrum
How did I get here?
When you read an average of a half-dozen home fire death stories every day for a month, it changes you. That's not hyperbole; I did, and it changed me. At the conclusion of 2019,I wrote in my #101Wednesdays blog about the year and decade in review in terms of life safety from fire.While there were several significant advances, I pondered about whether enough was being done to reduce the number of civilian deaths in home fires. The number has hovered between about 2,500 and 3,000 for the last 20 years or so. This is a significant improvement over the number of deaths recorded in prior decades, largely attributable to the proliferation of smoke alarms; but it's not getting any better. I had to ask myself, “Is this good enough?”
To help me understand the problem, I assigned myself a project. On January 1, I started scouring the internet for media reports of home fire deaths and tweeted the results each day with a running tally (you can see them in my Twitter feed at @NFPAGregH – see the hashtag #homefiredeaths). The U.S. Fire Administration's website was a valuable resource; between their data and my findings, I was able to provide a daily summary of who was dying in home fires every day in the U.S. My goal was to educate myself and to raise awareness. I did so until this past Monday, January 27, when the task became too much; the numbers were so high that it was affecting my ability to perform the functions NFPA pays me to do and was cutting into my nights and weekends. Reading all the stories of loss and tragedy also had an emotional impact on me. I needed to be reminded of why I came to work for NFPA almost 24 years ago. Yes, overseeing the development process for codes like NFPA 101 is important work and ultimately leads to a safer built environment. But I believe there's more that we – I – can do to make a real difference, and the home fire death problem is certainly an area in which there is room to make a difference.
While each story I read over the past month was tragic, there were several that stood out in my mind. This journey actually started a few days before the new year. On December 27th, a spectacular fire destroyed a Concord, MA mansion. This fire garnered tremendous media attention despite the fact that no one was killed or injured. On the same day, a father and his two young daughters died in a fire in their modest apartment in Hemet, CA; this fire was barely a blip on the media radar. The disparity in coverage was glaring.
On January 5th, two men died in a house fire in Fitchburg, MA. The fire was blamed on an overloaded power strip (or relocatable power tap in code parlance); coincidentally, the latest #FireCodefridays blog addresses electrical safety requirements in NFPA 1, Fire Code. This fire stood out to me because I grew up in the adjacent town and was a member of that town's on-call fire department in the 80s and 90s. We ran mutual aid to Fitchburg quite often; that's where I caught most of my “big fires.” Because of my personal experience, this fire hit close to home.
On January 8th, an elderly woman died in a fire in Ellabel, GA caused by a clogged dryer vent. This fire stuck out for several reasons: one was because the victim was elderly, as were several other victims I documented over the month. Another was because the fire was in a manufactured home (or “mobile home” as commonly referred to by the media). Manufactured home fires and elderly fire victims are apparently not uncommon. If you search my Twitter feed for #manufacturedhomefire and #olderadultfiredeath, you will find several occurrences. Another fire in a manufactured home in rural Kentucky killed a grandmother and three children the day before.
Another house fire in Kentucky left a mother and her six-year-old daughter dead on January 17th. This fire was noteworthy because it was reported that the home had no working smoke alarms; this is also not an uncommon occurrence (search my Twitter feed for #noworkingsmokealarms). It's unimaginable to me that people still don't have working smoke alarms. This will be a topic for a future post in this series.
On January 20th, a fire in a Bronx, NY high-rise apartment building killed an 85-year-old retired NYPD police officer. Although not reported, it is presumed that sprinklers were not installed in the apartment of fire origin. The combination of a high-rise building, residential occupancy, elderly residents, and lack of automatic sprinklers seems to be a “perfect storm” with regard to the potential for large numbers of fatalities. Disaster was averted in this fire thanks to the strong work by the FDNY.
The home fire death problem appears to stem from a combination of lack of protection (sprinklers and smoke alarms) and an apathetic public. Codes like NFPA 101 can prescribe minimum protection requirements, but we can't regulate people's attitudes towards fire; this is, I believe, the biggest hurdle to be cleared if we're going to lower the numbers of fire deaths. In this series, I don't expect to have a lot of answers; rather, I intend to ask questions to stimulate discussions to help hone in on the things we can change to have the biggest impact. I figure I've got about another 15 years left in this career. It won't mean much in 2035 to have my name in a bunch of Life Safety Codes if 2,500 to 3,000 people are still dying each year in U.S. home fires as they have been for the last 20 years.
Thanks for reading, and as always, stay safe.
The views expressed in #101Wednesdays are my own and do not reflect the views of NFPA.
Did you know NFPA 101 is available to review online for free? Head over to www.nfpa.org/101 and click on “FREE ACCESS.”
Follow me on Twitter: @NFPAGregH
NOTE: This blog first appeared as part of Mr. Harrington's #101 Wednesdays blog series on NFPA Today on January 29, 2020.