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Research shows progress and problems since "America Burning"

"The striking aspect of the Nation’s fire problem is the indifference with which Americans confront the subject. Destructive fire takes a huge toll in lives, injuries, and property losses, yet there is no need to accept those losses with resignation. There are many measures--often very simple precautions-that can be taken to reduce those losses significantly.”

Nearly 50 years ago, these salient words were reflected in the opening pages of America Burning, the historic report written in 1973 and revisited in 1980. Over the decades since the landmark account was published, I have heard countless people cite America Burning findings, point to the recommendations within, and talk about what the findings did for fire protection, fire prevention, and responder safety. I whole-heartedly agree that America Burning was a groundbreaking tool in our arsenal and yet, today, in arguably the most advanced nation in the world – nearly 3,000 people still succumb to house fires, not to mention in other occupancies.

On the same page of that report, the authors wrote, “These statistics are impressive in their size, though perhaps not scary enough to jar the average American from his confidence that “It will never happen to me.”

And therein lies the problem. Complacency. It’s a killer of people, of property, of perspective, and of progress.

But as has often been said, knowledge is power. NFPA has spent the last 125 years, believing this tenet to be true and furthering understanding in the interest of safety. Our vision of eliminating death, injury, property, and economic loss due to fire, electrical, and related hazards is not merely a cliché, it is at the core of everything we do, everything that the America Burning report touched on back in the 70s and 80s, and served as the impetus for a new seminal report from NFPA and the Fire Protection Research Foundation, our research affiliate.

The Fire in the United States Since 1980, Through the Lens of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem Report shows the progress we have achieved in reducing loss in certain structures; the strides we’ve made with fire protection technologies such as smoke alarms and sprinklers; the success that we have achieved through public education; and the positive effect that mandated codes and standards have played in altering the fire experience in our country.

Today, we rarely see people perish in healthcare settings or hotels. Children are less likely to die from playing with fire. Fires in apartment buildings and hi-rise buildings have decreased. Our schools and the children, educators, and staff that occupy them are significantly safer. These are all positives that, in many ways, point to the components of the Ecosystem that we have been talking about for three years now. Yes, at NFPA, we look at safety through the lens of the Ecosystem – not because we developed this framework a few years back but - because after more than a century of championing safety, two America Burning studies and this new research from NFPA – it is abundantly clear that fire safety requires a holistic, purposeful approach, and unwavering accountability.

That holistic, purposeful approach and unwavering accountability is what it’s going to take for us to move the needle on the most pressing fire safety issues of today. The new research reminds us:

  • We need all the elements of the Ecosystem working together on Community Risk Reduction (CRR) strategies so that we can decrease the number of elderly dying in home fires. With roughly one of every three fatal home fire victims being 65 or older, more research and resources are needed to protect our most vulnerable citizens. That’s why our Data, Analytics and Research team and the Research Foundation work to inform our Remembering When program which educates communities on older adult fire and fall prevention.

  • States with higher fire death rates have larger percentages of people who have a disability; have incomes below the poverty line; live in rural areas; or are populated by African Americans, Blacks, Native Americans, or Alaskan Natives. There is more work to do to reach those at greatest risk.

  • We must stem the trend of wildfire-caused human and property losses. Wildfire is becoming the dominant type of fire that causes catastrophic multiple deaths and property destruction in our country. In fact, 7 of the 10 costliest fires in the US were fires in the wildland/urban interface. We launched our new Outthink Wildfire™ policy campaign to advocate change around where and how we build and to bring together policy-makers, the fire service, and the public to work with all elements of the Ecosystem, so that we can redraft history and change the narrative.

“Each one of us must become aware – not for a single time, but for all the year – of what he or she can do to prevent fires,” President Richard Nixon said in 1972. (The quote can be heard in the latest NFPA Learn Something New video about the new research.)

 

I urge you to use the knowledge in this new report to power your fire prevention and protection steps so, together, we can rewrite history.

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James Pauley
President & CEO of NFPA

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