Author(s): Lorraine Carli. Published on November 28, 2022.

What Would Harry Do?

Today's fire problem contains echoes of the challenges articulated by President Harry S. Truman 75 years ago


Seventy-five years ago, President Harry S. Truman held The President’s Conference on Fire Prevention, where he implored government, business, and the public to tackle the fire problems plaguing the nation. He singled out the LaSalle Hotel fire in Chicago and Atlanta’s Winecoff Hotel fire, which together killed 170 people in 1946, as unacceptable and catastrophic examples of fires that needed to be eliminated. He highlighted forest fires as a growing threat to the nation. Truman continued his plea to act by referencing the thousands of fires that were occurring every day across the country without many people even noticing, urging all Americans to “dedicate ourselves anew to ceaseless war upon the fire menace.”

Truman’s 1947 event did in fact initiate important action in fire prevention and safety and is often referenced as a catalyst for many changes that have contributed to reducing fires and fire deaths since. Activities associated with the NFPA-sponsored Fire Prevention Week (FPW) intensified, occurring in more communities across the country. (FPW, which marked its 100th year during its most recent observance in October, has become the longest-running public health observance on record.) Ongoing fire-safety outreach efforts began to take hold, and initiatives advanced that improved the protection of buildings from fire.

Fast forward to today. We have made progress. It is unusual to see large-loss-of-life fires in hotels and high-rises due to the use of sprinklers. Similarly, we see fewer deaths and injuries in schools because of fire drills. The numbers of home fires and home fire deaths have decreased significantly due to the widespread use of smoke alarms mandated by regulations, and through public education efforts that highlight their importance. But emerging issues and lingering challenges remain, requiring a Truman-style call to action to combat the nation’s complacency around fire.

A few troubling statistics from recent NFPA research underscore the need to remain vigilant. Only a quarter of the fires in 2021 occurred in home properties, including one- or two-family homes and apartments or other multifamily housing. However, these fires caused three-quarters of the civilian fire deaths and injuries. If we drill down a little further, 20 percent of fires occurred in one- or two-family homes, yet these fires caused nearly two-thirds of the civilian fire deaths and over half of the civilian fire injuries. The fire death rate for one- or two-family home fires was 35 percent higher than in 1980, meaning that you are more likely to die in a home fire today than you were four decades ago.

All of the major causes of fire decreased from 1980 to 2018 (the year of the most recent data) except one: cooking, which is consistently the leading cause of home fires. The percentage of home fires started by cooking in 2018 was almost two and half times higher than it was in 1980, and the percentage of cooking fire deaths was twice as high. Another troubling trend in home fires involves the impact of modern furniture, with the home fire death rate in living rooms and bedrooms twice as high in 2014–2018 as it was in 1980–1984.

Wildfire also warrants greater attention. These fires are getting bigger and are affecting more areas than ever before, becoming the nation’s dominant type of fire responsible for catastrophic multiple deaths and large losses.

President Truman opened his conference by stating that “Safety from fire should not be a topic for discussion only one or two weeks of the year.” It was true then, and it’s just as true now. The data around today’s fire challenges needs to be widely shared and provide the foundation for the next call to action to advance fire safety.

Lorraine Carli is vice president of Outreach and Advocacy for NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler