A house on fire

Post new year fires show that we still have much work to do in 2021 and beyond to reduce home fire deaths

This article initially appeared in the January issue of the NFPA Network newsletter.

After a nice holiday break, I returned to work on January 4th and was immediately struck by stories from around the globe about home fires and civilian loss of life. The news feed that day and since has led me to wonder if, after years of having nearly 3,000 home fire deaths, if 2021 will be the year that we all commit to and realize a decrease in tragedies.

With New Year’s Day barely in the rearview, I learned about fatal residential fires in ConnecticutOhio, and Pennsylvania. Those harrowing incidents were followed by residential fires in Rhode Island and Maryland that claimed the lives of parents trying to save their own children. I was equally saddened to read that a 6-year old autistic boy perished in a fire on Chicago’s Far South Side when a mother left him and his 13-year old brother unattended. Then there were two separate fires in East Texas and Melbourne, Australia where mothers and their three children died. And if those incidents weren’t hard enough to fathom, six people succumbed to a blaze in DeKalb, Georgia while on the other side of the world eight people died (and 90 residents were evacuated) when fire broke out in an apartment block fire in Russia.

All these recent misfortunes, and I’m sure some additional ones, took place before we even hit the two-week mark of 2021 and beg the question, why are we still seeing thousands dying annually in home fires?

NFPA has been gathering fire death statistics and insights via our annual fire experience survey since 1977 and began to incorporate National Fire Incident Reporting System data in 1980. We actually began collecting information on fires with 10 or more deaths long before that – we have records back to the origins of NFPA in 1896 and our first archival fire incident record is from 63 A.D. 

Today’s most recent report on home fires shows that, on average, more than 353,000 home fires and 2,620 civilian deaths occur per year. As the incidents noted above and research shows, January is the top month for home fires and deaths. Despite the 2019 fire loss estimates being 43 percent lower in one- or two-family homes and 63 percent lower in apartments than they were in 1980, we have plateaued at nearly 3,000 deaths annually for far too long. We can and must do better.

NFPA can help. Our public education team has an abundance of resources, in a variety of languages, that are designed to help educate audiences about fire hazards and safety tips during community outreach and via social media. Please take advantage of these tools, and recommit the time and energy needed to sharing fire prevention strategies that will help us to move the home fire death needle downward.   

Be inspired by Massachusetts which reported last week that, for the first time on record, no children died in home fires in the Bay State in 2020. State Fire Marshal Peter J. Ostroskey said, “To have no children, no one under the age of 18, die in a fire in Massachusetts is an amazing accomplishment. Through the 26 years of the Student Awareness of Fire Education Program (S.AF.E.), firefighters and classroom teachers have been helping to raise a fire safe generation of children. Historically, children and seniors have been most at risk of dying in fires. Ultimately, responsibility for home fire safety rests with the adults in the home, but the S.A.F.E Program has brought key safety information on maintaining smoke alarms, practicing home fire drills, cooking, heating, candle and match and lighter safety home to those adults. Goodness knows there’s nothing like being nagged by a 3rd grader to test your smoke alarm.”

I hope you will indulge me and embrace some well-intentioned “nagging” from NFPA so that we can reduce the number of home fire deaths in 2021.

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James Pauley
President & CEO of NFPA

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