Author(s): Birgitte Messerschmidt. Published on August 1, 2022.

The Poverty Factor

Economically disadvantaged people face a disproportionate share of fire risk in the US. But there are ways we can address this problem.


The number of fires and fire deaths in the United States has been cut in half since 1980, and it’s easy to think that we’ve almost solved the problem of fires in buildings. While we’ve made progress, a series of fires in January offer a stark reminder that we still have work to do, especially when the risk is faced by people who are economically disadvantaged.

On January 5, a fire in an apartment in Philadelphia killed 12 people, including nine children. Four days later, a fire in an apartment building in New York City killed 17 people, including eight children. On January 13, a firefighter died responding to a fire in a vacant building in St. Louis, and three firefighters were killed in a blaze in a vacant building in Baltimore on January 24. Each of these fires was rooted in socioeconomic challenges where fire safety takes a back seat to more immediate needs: shelter in a vacant building for a homeless person, for example, or a large extended family crowding into an apartment to ensure everyone has a place to sleep.

Many studies have described the connection between poverty and elevated fire risk in the US, as well as associated factors including overcrowding, older housing, the proportion of vacant houses in a community, and residents’ proficiency with English—all of which were highlighted by the January fires. But most of those studies focus primarily on general fire risk and contain little information on sociodemographic factors and their relationship to dwelling characteristics. That’s why NFPA’s Research Division recently teamed up with Kindling, a nonprofit focused on fire safety inequalities, with the goal of better understanding the scope of the problem and untangling the more complex interactions between human vulnerability, fire risk, and the building/shelter in which people live.

The resulting report, “The Invisible US Fire Problem,” which will be available online in mid-August, suggests that the understanding of fire risk faced by vulnerably sheltered persons is a product of the probability of a credible fire event occurring and the measure of the possibility of death or injury to an occupant resulting from that event. The approach allows for an in-depth evaluation of attributes of the building or shelter that can lead to potentially dangerous fires, as well as the attributes of the population that may make it more vulnerable to fire. Understanding that combination means we can potentially address these issues more effectively.

The best way to improve fire safety in the built environment is the implementation of fire safety technologies through mandated codes and standards. Unfortunately, many people living in un- or under-regulated buildings and shelters do not enjoy the benefits of that technology—fire safety in these buildings appears to consist primarily of public education efforts and fire service response. To complicate matters, research indicates that it can be easy to inadvertently set up barriers to improving fire safety in unregulated contexts, such as jurisdictions that prevent trash collection for buildings whose use is not legally recognized. To ensure the benefits of such regulation extend to all, we need to prioritize policies that enable fire safety rather than disable it, regardless of the circumstances people find themselves in.

Our fire problem will not be solved as long as people who are homeless or living in vulnerable building/shelter situations suffer disproportionally from fire. It is considered an “invisible” problem, despite impacting numerous communities and threatening vast numbers of people. Research gaps have been identified, and an outline of needed research has been drafted. But research alone is not enough to solve it. Ensuring fire safety for all will also require the enactment of policy and a willingness to act to address these emerging problems.

Birgitte Messerschmidt is director of the Applied Research Group at NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler