Author(s): John Hall, Jr., Ben Evarts, Marty Ahrens. Published on September 1, 2011.

U.S. Structure Fires in Stores and Other Mercantile Properties

By Ben Evarts

During the five-year period of 2004­ – 2008, NFPA estimates that U.S. fire departments responded to an average of 16,360 structure fires in stores and other mercantile properties per year. These fires caused an annual average of 13 civilian deaths, 242 civilian fire injuries, and $648 million in direct property damage. Reported fires in this occupancy group fell 57 percent from 37,500 in 1980 to 16,200 in 2008.

Stores and other mercantile properties include facilities providing personal services, such as barber and beauty shops; laundry or dry cleaning shops; service stations; vehicle or other repair shops; businesses selling professional supplies or services; retail stores; recreational, hobby, home repair shops; and pet stores. Grocery stores or other stores selling food or beverages accounted for 27 percent of these fires.

Fires that occurred during off-business hours caused considerably more damage per fire on average than those that occurred during the day. Fires that occurred between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. caused an average of $75,000 of property damage each, while those occurring between 5 a.m. and 9 p.m. caused an average of $29,000 of property loss each.

Cooking equipment was involved in 19 percent of the fires in stores and other mercantile properties. However, only 6 percent of the direct property damage resulted from cooking fires. Electrical distribution and lighting equipment was involved in 12 percent of the fires and 19 percent of property damage. The 10 percent of fires that were intentionally set caused 16 percent of the property damage. Heating equipment was involved in 11 percent of the fires and 9 percent of the property damage. Smoking materials started 9 percent and clothes dryers or washers were involved in 9 percent of the ignitions.

Sixteen percent of the fires in stores and other mercantile properties began in the kitchen or cooking area; these fires caused 4 percent of the direct property damage. Five percent of the fires began in the laundry room or area, probably due to the fact that laundries and dry cleaners are included in this group of occupancies. No other area of origin accounted for more than 4 percent of all fires.

Seventy-seven percent of the fires were confined to the room of origin.

The Total Cost of Fire in the United States

By John R. Hall, Jr. 

In 2008, the total cost of fire was estimated at $362 billion, or roughly 2.5 percent of the United States’ gross domestic product.

Of this, economic loss accounted for $20.1 billion, career fire departments for $39.7 billion, net insurance premiums for $15.2 billion, and new building costs for $62.7 billion. Other costs included economic costs that were not re-estimated each year, which came to $44 billion; the cost of statistical deaths and injuries, both civilian and firefighter, which came to $42.4 billion; and the cost of coverage by career firefighters of areas protected by volunteer firefighters, which came to $138.2 billion.

Most of the analysis supporting these estimates is soft and has wide bands of uncertainty. Nevertheless, the conclusion that fire has a tremendous impact on the way the United States uses its resources is indisputable.

It also is clear that we have a dual interest in reducing U.S. fire losses, which include human losses that are among the highest per capita in the industrial world, and in seeking ways to achieve equivalent fire safety at lower costs, since the growth in total cost of fire has been led by cost components other than fire losses. This provides a clear indication of need for product innovations or other programs, such as residential sprinklers and fire safety education, that can improve fire safety at the same or lower costs. It also shows the need for improved methods of calculating fire performance and costs, so that the implications of different choices can be considered and judged more comprehensively.

U.S. Experience with Non-Water-Based Automatic Fire Extinguishing Equipment

By John R. Hall, Jr. 

Non-water-based automatic extinguishing systems were present in 2 percent of U.S. reported structure fires in 2005 – 2009. The percentage was higher in places in which commercial cooking is common, including eating or drinking establishments, in which such systems were present in 41 percent of fires, and grocery or convenience stores, where they were present in 25 percent. Dry- or possibly wet-chemical systems were the type of system specified for most of these fires, and other special hazard systems were cited for most of the balance of the fires.

There are some odd patterns in the statistics. Fires involving carbon dioxide systems, halogen-type systems, foam systems, and, to a lesser extent, other special hazard systems are not reported primarily in the industrial locations where the first three systems are appropriate. Instead, these fires are reported primarily in properties with commercial kitchens, where most dry- or possibly wet-chemical systems are reported, or in residential properties, specifically homes. This suggests that most of these fires were either miscoded or involved portable fire extinguishers, which are not automatic and so should not be reported at all.

Dry- or possibly wet-chemical systems in the area of fire failed to operate in 36 percent of reported structure fires large enough to activate operating equipment. For systems that operated, performance was deemed effective in 68 percent of the cases. For fires large enough to activate suppression systems, the systems operated effectively 44 percent of the time.

Because the principal application of dry- or possibly wet-chemical systems is for area protection for commercial cooking operations, it may be more appropriate to limit the analysis to ranges and to include fires reported as confined fires in the analysis. If this is done, the likelihood of operating increases from 64 percent to 81 percent, the likelihood of effectiveness if equipment operates increases from 68 percent to 89 percent, and the likelihood of effective operation increases from 44 percent to 72 percent.

Forty-four percent of dry- or possibly wet-chemical system failures were due to lack of maintenance. Other reasons cited for failure were manual intervention that defeated the equipment and a damaged component. In some of these fires, the system had been shut off or was inappropriate for the type of fire.


By John R. Hall, Jr.

In 2009, 8,800 fireworks-related injuries were treated in U.S. hospital emergency rooms. The trend in fireworks-related injuries has been mostly in the range of 8,300 to 9,800 since 1996, except for spikes in 2000, primarily due to celebrations around the advent of a new millennium, and in 2004, and a sharp drop in 2008. Injuries were higher in 1984 – 1995 than in 1996 and later years.

In 2009, an estimated 18,000 reported fires were started by fireworks. These fires resulted in no reported civilian deaths, 30 civilian injuries, and $38 million in direct property damage.

During 2005 – 2009, the largest numbers of outdoor fires associated with fireworks involved grass fires, of which there were 9,400 per year; brush fires, of which there were 6,000; dumpster fires, of which there were 2,200; unclassified or unknown-type natural vegetation fires, of which there were 1,700; and outside trash, rubbish, or waste fires, or which there were 1,500.

In 2005 – 2009, three people were killed annually in fires started by fireworks, while six were killed directly by fireworks annually. These estimates may overlap, because fireworks can directly kill someone while also starting a fatal fire.

Thirty-nine percent of victims injured by fireworks in 2009 were under age 15. The highest rates of injuries per million population were for children ranging in age from 10 to 14, and males accounted for 73 percent of fireworks injuries.

Fifty-three percent of the 2009 fireworks injuries were to extremities: hands or fingers accounted for 32 percent; legs for 12 percent; and arms, shoulders, or wrists for 9 percent. Most of the rest were to parts of the head, including the eye.

In 2009, five out of six fireworks injuries treated at emergency rooms involved fireworks that federal regulations permit consumers to use.

The risk of fire death relative to exposure reveals fireworks to be more risky per hour of use than cigarettes.

U.S. Experience with Sprinklers

By John R. Hall, Jr. 

Automatic sprinklers are highly effective and reliable elements of total system designs for fire protection in buildings. According to the 2009 American Housing Survey, 4.6 percent of occupied homes, including multi-unit homes, had sprinklers in 2009, up from 3.9 percent in 2007, and 18.5 percent of occupied homes built in the previous four years had sprinklers.

Sprinklers were present in an estimated 9 percent of reported 2005 – 2009 structure fires. They were present in 57 percent of reported fires in health-care properties. Manufacturing facilities, hotels and motels, prisons and jails, and dormitories and barracks all had sprinklers in roughly half of reported structure fires. There were no sprinklers in more than half of all reported fires in every other property use.

Sprinklers are still rare in most of the places where people are most exposed to fire, including educational properties, stores and offices, public assembly properties, and homes, where most fire deaths occur. There is considerable potential for expanded use of sprinklers to reduce the loss of life and property to fire.

Sprinklers operated in 91 percent of all reported structure fires large enough to activate sprinklers, excluding buildings under construction and buildings without sprinklers in the area in which the fire occurred. When sprinklers operated, they were effective 96 percent of the time, resulting in a combined performance of operating effectively in 87 percent of all reported fires where sprinklers were present in the fire area and fire was large enough to activate them. The more widely used wet-pipe sprinklers operated effectively 89 percent of the time, while dry-pipe sprinklers operated effectively in 74 percent of cases.

With wet-pipe sprinklers, the fire death rate per 1,000 reported home structure fires was lower by 83 percent, and the rate of property damage per reported home structure fire was lower by 71 percent.

When sprinklers fail to operate, the reason most often given was that the system had been shut off before the fire began, as may occur in the course of routine inspection or maintenance. Other leading reasons were manual intervention that defeated the system, lack of maintenance, and inappropriate system for the type of fire. Only 7 percent of sprinkler failures were attributed to component damage.

When sprinklers operated but were ineffective, the reason usually had to do with an insufficiency of water applied to the fire, either because water did not reach the fire or because not enough water was released. Other leading reasons were manual intervention that defeated the system, system component damage, lack of maintenance, and inappropriate system for the type of fire.

Home Structure Fires

By Marty Ahrens

During the five-year period from 2005 to 2009, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated average of 373,900 home structure fires per year that resulted in an annual average of 2,650 civilian deaths, 12,890 civilian fire injuries, and $7.1 billion in direct property damage. Home fires accounted for 73 percent of all reported structure fires, 92 percent of civilian structure fire deaths, 86 percent of civilian structure fire injuries, and 68 percent of direct structure fire property loss.

Forty-seven percent of home structure fires and 54 percent of home structure fire deaths reported in 2005–2009 occurred from November through March, reflecting the influence of heating equipment fires. Reported home fires peaked between 5 and 8 p.m. Only 20 percent occurred between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., but half of the home fire deaths resulted from fires reported during these hours.

Cooking equipment is still the leading cause of reported home structure fires and civilian fire injuries. It is also the leading cause of unreported fires. The Consumer Product Safety Commission found that, in 2004 – 2005, U.S. households experienced 50 cooking equipment fires that they did not report to a fire department for every household cooking fire they did.

Smoking materials caused the largest number of fire deaths in 2005­ – 2009. Heating equipment was the second leading cause of home fires and home fire deaths, but it was the leading cause of deaths resulting from fires in one- or two-family homes.

Two of every five reported home fires started in the kitchen or cooking area, causing 15 percent of the home fire deaths and 37 percent of the reported fire injuries. The 8 percent of home structure fires that started in the bedroom caused 25 percent of the civilian deaths and 21 percent of the civilian injuries. The 6 percent of home fires that originated in, and were confined to, the chimney or flue resulted in less than 1 percent of civilian fire deaths, injuries, and associated property damage. The 4 percent of home structure fires that began in the living room, family room, or den caused 24 percent of the civilian fire deaths and 11 percent of the civilian injuries.

Almost two-thirds of home fire deaths resulted from fires in the bedroom; the living room, family room, or den; or the kitchen. Almost three-quarters of the victims of bedroom fires were in the area of origin at the time of the fire, as were almost half the victims of fires in the living room, family room, or den. Two of five fatalities in kitchen fires were also in the area of origin. While two-thirds to three-quarters of the deaths from fires that began in these three areas resulted from fires that spread beyond the room of origin, four out of five of the injuries from kitchen fires were caused by fires confined to the kitchen.

In almost three-quarters of the fires that started in the bedroom, flame damage spread beyond the room. However, only 28 percent of the victims were outside of the bedroom when the fire started. This suggests that, in most of these incidents, much of the fire growth occurred after the victims were incapacitated.

Physical Disability as a Factor in Home Fire Deaths

By Ben Evarts

The American Community Survey found that 9 percent of U.S. residents who lived in communities in 2005 – 2007 and were at least five years old had some type of long-lasting physical disability that could make it difficult or impossible to escape a fire independently.

Twenty-one percent of the people with physical disabilities had incomes below the poverty line, which made it less likely they could afford specialized safety equipment or pay for attendants to help them. Four percent of the surveyed population had some type of sensory impairment, including vision and hearing impairments, and might not have been able to hear a smoke alarm or an oral communication or been able to read printed instructions.

During 2004 – 2008, physical disability was identified as a contributing factor in an estimated average of 380, or 14 percent, of U.S. home fire deaths per year. If all the people with physical disabilities in the general population and among fire victims aged 5 and older were identified and the definitions of physical disability used were comparable, people with physical disabilities had a home fire death rate in 2004 – 2008 of 15 deaths per million. This rate is 1.6 times the nine deaths per million population from all home fires and assumes the 2005 ­– 2007 population with disabilities would be comparable to the population in 2004 – 2008. Since it is very likely that some victims with physical disabilities were not reported because those disabilities were not readily observable, however, the 15 deaths per million population would be an underestimate.

Providing adequate fire safety for individuals with physical disabilities can be challenging, particularly in cases of severe mobility limitations. Detection requirements consider the time an able-bodied person needs to leave the building. If an individual cannot move out of danger, a working smoke alarm provides less benefit. In some cases, particularly when an individual is already in poor health and in the immediate area of the fire origin, fatal injury may occur before a sprinkler operates.

Compared to all home fire victims, victims with physical disabilities were more likely to be female and at least 65 years of age.

While home fire deaths in general are much more common between midnight and 6:00 a.m., time patterns were less pronounced when physical disability was a factor. Fifteen percent of these deaths resulted from fires occurring between 3 and 6 p.m. More than half of these deaths resulted from fires in homes with operating smoke alarms compared to only 38 percent of home fire deaths overall.

When physical disability was a factor, half of the victims were involved in ignition and were in the area of origin at the time the fire began. Including those who were not involved in ignition, two-thirds were in the area of origin when the fire started. Almost one-third of the victims were unable to act to save themselves. Fifty-nine percent of the victims suffered both burns and smoke inhalation as their primary apparent symptom.