Author(s): Fred Durso. Published on May 1, 2010.

Elderly women in front of burned house

Elders at Risk
A new NFPA report finds older adults continue to face higher risk of home fire deaths  

Adults over the age of 75 are nearly three times as likely to die in a home fire as the general public, and adults 85 and over are three-and-a-half times as likely.

Those are some of the key findings in a new NFPA report, “Characteristics of Home Fire Victims(PDF, 510KB). The report collects data on home fire victims in the United States from 2003-2007, and examines patterns by age, sex, race, and region, along with leading fire causes and risk factors.

The report finds that from 1980 to 2007, the share of home fire deaths accounted for by adults age 65 and over increased from 19 percent to 29 percent of the total. While adults over the age of 65 have experienced an overall decrease of 18 percent in home fire injuries since 1980, those injuries have increased 13 percent for that group since 2002.

Those trends, combined with a growing pool of people 65 and over, make it even more important to reach older adults with safety messages, says Sharon Gamache, senior program manager for High-Risk Outreach Programs in NFPA’s Public Education Division. “Older adults may have more difficulty escaping a fire,” she says. “Some may not have adequate smoke alarms in their homes, and may have difficulty hearing alarms. They are less likely to have learned fire-safe behaviors when they grew up and may not be as aware of new safety technology.” Information on fire prevention for seniors is available online through Remembering When™, an NFPA fire and fall prevention program located at

Women over the age of 65 have the highest risk of fatal injury in home structure fires. Although men 75 and over are a high-risk group for fatal injuries, they have a significantly lower risk of dying in a home structure fire compared to women of the same age. The report finds that as the age of victims increases, physical disabilities are cited much more frequently than other factors that contribute to injury.

Other key findings of the report include:

  • According to a study cited in the report, people over 75 are especially at risk for sleeping through high-pitched smoke alarm signals.
  • Adults 85 and older are at highest risk of death in home fires caused by cooking equipment, with a risk rating four-and-a-half times that of the general public.
  • Since 2002, home fire deaths by children under 5 have declined, and from 1980 to 2007, the share of home fire deaths of children under 5 declined from 18 percent to 9 percent. Despite this decline, children under 5 are still one of the highest-risk groups, and are almost one-and-a-half times as likely to die in a home fire as the general public.
  • Rural communities have the highest fire death rates in the nation. With the exception of communities with populations of 2,500 to 5,000, the fire death in rural populations was at least twice that found in most other population intervals.
  • Adults ages 20-34 have a risk of injury 28 percent above the all-ages average.
  • In the U.S., males have a 29 percent higher risk of home fire death than females, and a 16 percent higher risk of non-fatal home fire injury. 

It’s Personal
A new NFPA program puts a human face on the fire sprinkler effort. Plus, legislative updates from the front lines of the sprinkler fight. 

By Fred Durso, Jr. 

Cindy Rutter thinks of herself as a burn survivor, not a burn victim.

Cindy Rutter burn survivorRutter was 6 years old when she suffered third-degree burns on 85 percent of her body after a hot-water-heater explosion caused a fire in her family’s three-bedroom home. She underwent 103 surgeries by the time she was 18, and has scars on her face, arms, torso, legs, and back that serve as reminders of her ordeal. “I consider myself lucky to be alive,” she says. “Fire sprinklers could have prevented a lot of damage to my home and myself.”

Rutter, 57, has spoken publicly on home sprinklers, and is using her story as a catalyst for change. “If people could only see one person who has a severe burn injury and realize what it does to them — that makes a big difference,” she says.

Stories like Rutter’s will form the core of Faces of Fire, a new NFPA program designed as a complement to the organization’s current Fire Sprinkler Initiative. The campaign also plans to engage members of the fire service to help them become more active proponents for home sprinklers in their communities. The program will be funded by a $746,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Fire Prevention and Safety Grant Program. The grant award was announced in April.

FEMA also awarded the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition, an NFPA partner, with a grant of $988,000. Fire Team USA received $626,000, and Common Voices, a coalition sponsored by the National Fire Sprinkler Association that includes advocates affected by fire, received $222,000 to conduct similar outreach efforts to promote home sprinklers.     

Faces of Fire will add a human element to NFPA’s Fire Sprinkler Initiative (FSI), according to Lorraine Carli, NFPA’s vice president of communications and the campaign’s lead contact.
“As a society, we’ve become fairly complacent about fire because we are somewhat victims of success,” says Carli. “We’ve seen a decline in home fires and home fire deaths in the last three decades. But the reality is that home fires are devastating when they do occur, and they impact real people. We want to use their stories to remind everyone that home fires remain a real threat.”

Carli says that the Faces of Fire initiative will partner with the Michigan-based Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors to identify burn survivors who can share their stories. She plans to host a training meeting later this year for public safety educators, fire officials, and building officials.

The FSI was launched last year to promote code adoptions and local ordinances requiring sprinklers in one- and two-family homes. The campaign’s new online toolkit — including fact sheets, videos featuring fire victims, and social media components—will make its debut this fall on the FSI website,

Legislative updates

In related news, the state-by-state battle between residential sprinkler advocates and opponents continues.

On February 24, the South Carolina Building Code Council voted, by a six-to-three margin, to adopt the International Residential Code® (IRC), which requires the installation of sprinklers in all new homes effective January 1, 2011. A coalition comprised of fire service officials, sprinkler associations, contractors, design professionals, homebuilders, insurance agents, and government officials backed the decision. A bill introduced in the state Senate challenges the adoption, however, and would prohibit jurisdictions from requiring fire sprinklers in one- and two-family homes. The measure has moved out of the committee stage with “favorable recommendation,” according to Maria Figueroa, regional manager of NFPA’s Fire Prevention Field Office.

In Pennsylvania, a judge denied the Pennsylvania Builders Association’s request for a preliminary injunction, which would have reverted the state back to its 2006 building codes, which do not permit residential sprinklers. Last year, the Pennsylvania Independent Regulatory Review Commission decided to adopt the IRC, requiring the installation of sprinklers in townhouses effective January 1 this year, and in new one- and two-family homes in 2011. Pending final resolution of the case, the IRC requirements remain in effect. There’s also a bill pending in committee that prohibits fire sprinkler requirements for homes not connected to a reliable municipal water supply or located within five miles of a fire station.

Elsewhere, a New Jersey review commission, formed as part of an executive order by Governor Chris Christie, has recommended the state go forward with an amended IRC requiring home sprinklers. “That executive order says that there should be no rule held up that is against citizen safety,” Figueroa says. “That’s why the fire service and the New Jersey sprinkler coalition are saying that sprinklers are a life safety issue and shouldn’t be held up.”

In New Hampshire, the state’s Code Review Board voted to adopt the 2009 IRC with an effective date of April 1, 2012. However, a bill introduced this year bumps the date to 2013.

“We’re in a situation that’s not unexpected,” says Gary Keith, NFPA’s vice president of Field Operations, of the sprinkler fights going on around the country. “It’s an incremental process we’re going through. Compared to where we were two years ago—where we had minimal state level activity on the issue — the debate is now occurring.”

Dangers of the Trade
A preview of the 2009 U.S. Firefighter Fatality Study 

In 2009, 82 firefighters in the United States were fatally injured while on duty, a sharp drop from the 105 deaths in 2008. This is well below the average of 101 deaths per year over the previous decade, and the lowest annual total since 1993.

Those are some of the key findings in the 2009 U.S. Firefighter Fatality Study, authored by Rita F. Fahy, Paul R. LeBlanc, and Joseph L. Molis of NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division. The complete report on the 2009 fatalities will be presented at the NFPA Conference and Expo in Las Vegas in June, and will appear in the July/August NFPA Journal. Other preliminary findings include:

  • Sudden cardiac death claimed the largest number of firefighters—43 percent.
  • Of the 82 firefighters killed in 2009, 41 were volunteer firefighters and 31 were career firefighters. Most of the other victims were contractors to, or employees of, land management agencies. One victim was working on a race track fire safety crew.
  • The largest share of deaths occurred on the fire ground, accounting for approximately one-third of the on-duty deaths in 2009.
  • The second-largest share of deaths occurred while firefighters were responding to or returning from fires and other emergency calls. Half of these deaths occurred in vehicle crashes. 
  • Fires in one- and two-family dwellings claimed the largest share of firefighter deaths at structure fires.
  • One firefighter was murdered in 2009.
  • By region, there were 34 firefighter deaths in the South, 21 deaths in the Northeast, 15 in the North Central states, and 12 in the West.
  • The victims ranged in age from 18 to 78.

The full report will include a 10-year look at firefighter deaths while operating inside at structure fires.

— Rita Fahy

Basic Training
Hawaii, Maryland, and Delaware adopt major NFPA codes 

Hawaii has joined 20 other states in adopting NFPA 1, Fire Code, which further safeguards residents from fire-related injuries. Implementation in the Aloha State took effect in January.

Hawaii’s State Fire Council — comprised of fire chiefs from the Honolulu, Hawaii County, Kauai, and Maui fire departments — approved the adoption and relied heavily on NFPA’s assistance during meetings on code implementation. The council’s Fire Prevention Committee, which includes members of the departments’ fire prevention bureaus, spent hours reviewing the code and determining amendments based on enforcement authority as well as state and county statutes. “The support that NFPA provided for this adoption effort is unprecedented,” says Chief Socrates Bratakos, State Fire Council administrator and Honolulu Fire Department battalion chief. “It allowed our staff to concentrate on the technical provisions and amendments, while the NFPA staff took care of secretarial duties. The result was the best fire code for the state.”

NFPA’s technical experts will offer training on NFPA 1 in June. These training programs, which cover the code’s requirements and techniques for enforcement and utilization, are offered free to states that have adopted major NFPA codes and standards. “The code will ensure that all citizens of our state are better protected from the dangers caused by fires and explosions,” says Chief Ken Silva, chair of the Fire Council.

NFPA 1 primarily focuses on ensuring fire prevention and references or extracts key components of other NFPA codes and standards. The document also outlines inspection requirements; provides guidelines on construction, specifications, and maintenance of fire-protection systems; and establishes necessary fire- and life-safety education for the public.

In other code-adoption news, Maryland and Delaware have adopted the latest editions of NFPA 1, NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, and NFPA 70®, National Electrical Code® (NEC®). State officials have received training on the codes and are scheduled to receive further instruction later this year. “We have learned from past experience that utilizing the most up-to-date versions of fire- and life-safety codes and standards is an essential part of protecting the people of Delaware from fire and other hazards,” says State Fire Marshal Grover P. Ingle.

Used in every U.S. state and adopted statewide in 43 states, the Life Safety Code® sets minimum building design, construction, operation, and maintenance requirements, while providing escape requirements for new and existing buildings. The NEC, which is adopted in nearly every U.S. state, includes provisions for safe electrical installations.

— Fred Durso, Jr.


Perfect Pair
A new IAFC program taps the fire service to spread the word on wildland fire safety, with a  little help from NFPA’s Firewise program 

NFPA’s Firewise program will provide its elements of wildland-fire preparedness to Ready, Set, Go!, a new effort by the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) designed to instruct residents on the preparedness, evacuation, and survival of wildfires through assistance from fire departments.

Eight communities nationwide are participating in a Ready, Set, Go! pilot program. Each is located near a municipality that’s part of Firewise, which includes 538 participating communities around the country. Firewise provides communities with the tools necessary to take proactive steps in reducing loss of life and property damage from wildfires, and these principles comprise the “ready” component of Ready, Set, Go! “Being ready means you’ve prepared your home and everything around it within a couple hundred feet to prevent large flames and radiant heat in that area,” says Michele Steinberg, NFPA’s Firewise communities manager.

The “set” component of Ready, Set, Go! urges residents to elevate their situational awareness when a fire occurs, while “go” encourages the implementation of a family disaster plan. Fire departments from the selected communities will help get that information to the public. NFPA will assist the departments by linking them with contacts in neighboring Firewise communities and providing communication materials.

“Ready, Set, Go! helps spread the Firewise message to people who need it,” Steinberg says. “Firewise has developed relationships with state foresters, but there wasn’t a direct connection to the fire departments. We’re excited that Ready, Set, Go! is helping us do that.”

The pilot communities include Pigeon Forge, Tennessee; Prescott, Arizona; L’Anse, Michigan; Columbus, Montana; Barnegat, New Jersey; Palmerton, Pennsylvania; Huntsville, Texas; and Sandy City, Utah.  Tony Watson, fire chief in Pigeon Forge, says his community experiences “about three to four major wildland events” each year. Pigeon Forge is located in heavily forested country near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the area includes a large number of vacation rental properties. Watson says he plans to partner with local rental companies to spread the wildland fire preparedness message. “We’ve worked very hard in pushing smoke detectors, and word of mouth has helped us more than anything,” he says. “We have to get out there again and let community leaders be champions for this program.”

For information on Ready, Set, Go!, visit For information on Firewise, visit

— Fred Durso, Jr.