Mitigating the rural fire problem.
NFPA Journal®, July/August 2008
By Sharon Gamache, John R. Hall, Jr., Marty Ahrens, Gerri Penney, and Ed Kirtley
Rural communities in the United States, defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as communities with populations under 2,500, have a fire death rate twice the national average. To examine what can be done to reduce this high death rate, the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) partnered with NFPA on a project entitled "Mitigating the Rural Fire Problem." The objectives of the project were to conduct research on behaviors and other factors contributing to the rural fire problem; identify mitigation programs, technologies, and strategies to address those problems; and propose actions the USFA Public Education Division can take to better implement the programs in rural communities.
Characteristics of rural America
The primary defining characteristic of rural America is separation: separation of communities from one another and separation of residents from one another. Tasks involving travel take more time and cost more, and the potential market for any business requiring travel, either to deliver a product to a home or to acquire a product at a store, is smaller. Print media are among the businesses so affected, and this has an impact on the quantity and ease of communication within and to a rural community.
The most important correlated characteristic of rural America is a greater likelihood of being poor. In 2003, for example, the percentage of the population below the poverty line was 12.1 percent in metropolitan areas and 14.2 percent outside metropolitan areas. Less income means fewer resources. It also means a greater need for safety in the form of safer products and of devices designed to provide safety, such as smoke alarms, and a reduced ability to fill that need without outside help.
Poverty is more important than distance as a factor driving the higher fire risk in rural America. In the United States, the smallest communities and the largest communities are the ones at highest risk. The smallest are rural communities, while the largest are the largest cities. Rural communities and large cities do not have distance and separation in common, but they do have a higher likelihood of poverty in common.
Other important characteristics of rural America have to do with the social networks that organize life and the importance of trust and familiarity to the operation of these networks. Whether these conditions are very different in larger communities or not isn’t clear, but our experts on fires and fire safety in rural communities all agreed on the importance of these networks in rural life.
Characteristics of the rural fire problem
The distribution of incident types is roughly the same in rural and non-rural areas, including the proportion of reported outdoor fires that involve neither structures nor vehicles. However, the causal profiles are quite different for both outdoor fires and residential structure fires. In the three years from 1993 to 1995, for example, 45 percent of the rural outside fires were caused by open flame, 16 percent by arson, and 9 percent by natural causes. By contrast, arson caused 44 percent of the non-rural outside fires.
Rural residential fires were more likely to be caused by heating equipment, to occur in properties that had no smoke alarms, and to have flame damage spread to the entire structure. In the three years from 1993 to 1995, for example, 36 percent of the rural residential fires were caused by heating, 13 percent by cooking, and 12 percent by electrical distribution equipment. Twenty-six percent of the fatal residential rural fires were caused by heating, 23 percent by smoking, and 17 percent by electrical distribution equipment. Of the non-rural, fatal residential fires, smoking caused 28 percent, arson was responsible for 17 percent, and heating caused 12 percent. These statistics are based on data collected by the U.S. Fire Administration’s (USFA’s) National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) and published in a USFA report. The terms used are NFIRS code choices.
In the three years from 1993 to 1995, fixed or portable space heaters, including woodstoves, were involved in 44 percent of the rural residential heating fires. Chimneys ranked second, at 25 percent, and fireplaces ranked third, at 11 percent. Adhesive, resin, or tar, including creosote, was the type of material first ignited in nearly half of the rural residential heating fires.
Seventy-three percent of rural home fires occurred in properties without working smoke alarms, compared to 65 percent in non-rural properties. The difference had more to do with whether smoke alarms were present than whether they were working. Smoke alarms were not present in 58 percent of the rural fires compared to only 42 percent of the non-rural fires. For fires where smoke alarms were present, smoke alarms were not working in 36 percent of the rural fires compared to a similar 40 percent of non-rural fires.
Flame damage extended to the entire structure in 29 percent of the rural residential structure fires, but in only 17 percent of such fires in nonrural areas.
Rural differences by region
Rural communities and the rural fire problem differ considerably from one region of the United States to another. From 2000 to 2004, the rural fire death rates per million population were 29.0 for the South, 28.2 for the West, 27.0 for the Northeast, and 22.8 for the North Central region. Historically, the South has had the highest fire death rate and the highest rural fire death rate, but the gap between the South and the other regions has shrunk in recent years, and the South has not had the highest fire death rate or the highest rural fire death rate in every single year.
The South is also by far the most populous region, representing more than one-third of total U.S. population, and contains nearly half the total U.S. rural population. Therefore, talking about the rural fire problem and the Southern fire problem interchangeably is not uncommon. However, this is misleading. Rural communities have the highest fire incident and fire death rates in all four regions in most years.
Because the South has half the nation’s rural population, and has a higher rural fire incident rate and rural fire death rate than other regions, the South dominates total national rural fire statistics. For example, the heightened share of rural fire deaths involving heating equipment is as much a Southern phenomenon as it is a rural phenomenon. Of the four regions, the South consistently has the mildest and shortest heating season. Thus, poorer households in the South are the ones that find it most feasible to use space heating exclusively, resulting in a fire experience for space heating that compares with central heating in other regions.
Fire risk is often correlated with poverty, and rural areas tend to be poorer than non-rural areas anywhere in the country. However, the gap in poverty rates between rural and non-rural areas is largest in the South and is associated more with African-Americans than is true in other regions. The rural South has nearly all of America’s rural African-Americans and nearly all of America’s poor rural African-Americans. Rural populations tend to have a lower African-American share than do non-rural populations, but that difference is almost non-existent in the South. And the rural poor tend to have a lower African-American share than do the non-rural poor, although that difference is much more pronounced outside the South.
The West historically has the lowest overall fire death rates, but not always the lowest rural fire death rates. This region has some distinctive and important sub-groups of the rural population that deserve separate attention, but should not be mistaken for the typical rural population of those regions. The West includes Native American communities, migrant worker communities, and Mexican border communities, sometimes called colonias. As with the African-American population of the rural South, the Native American and Mexican-American populations of the West have a distinctive character.
Thinking of rural America as primarily a farming community is also a mistake. Non-farm rural dwellers outnumber rural farmers by about 18 to 1. However, this imbalance varies by region. The North Central region still has much of America’s agricultural activity and farms.
In addition, poor housing quality is generally a problem in the rural South. The South has the highest proportion of manufactured homes: 12 percent as opposed to 3 to 7 percent in the other regions. This has historically been a factor in the elevated fire death rate in the South, because until very recently manufactured homes have had a higher fire death rate than conventional stickbuilt homes or apartments. However, now that most manufactured homes in use were built after 1976, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development introduced construction requirements, manufactured homes are no longer considered a high-risk environment.
The rural fire service
Nearly all rural fire departments are all or mostly volunteer and are more likely to have insuffi cient companies and personnel to meet national guidelines for effective response, since travel distances and times to fires and other emergencies tend to be longer because of the low density of such communities. Rural fire departments are less likely to have the equipment and training they need, and they are less likely to conduct fire prevention programs of all types, including code enforcement.
What we recommend
Based on our research, we recommend developing and implementing a model multi-hazard survey for homes that could be incorporated as a voluntary outreach program and used to identify homes that need changes in their equipment. The equipment to be checked could include both portable and stationary space heaters, electrical wiring and related parts of the electrical distribution system, and smoke alarms. The survey could also check related conditions, such as locked, blocked, or inoperable doors and windows that are part of primary or alternate escape routes.
For greatest effectiveness, the survey would be conducted by trained professionals, though not necessarily by certified fire inspectors or electricians, with the consent of the households. Despite the term "survey," we do not envision it as a hand-off instrument for households to use to review their own equipment.
After the survey, the residents of a household would be given a list, by priority, of safety hazards that should be corrected. In an ideal program, there would be a community block grant or other funding that would help the property owner to follow through on some of the improvements suggested by the survey.
We also recommend producing a walkthrough video showing a home survey in a rural home, as well as a DVD or video that communicates the importance of reaching rural communities and portrays the variety of rural communities in the United States. The elevated fire risks in rural areas remain largely unrecognized among much of the population, and the great diversity among rural communities is an obstacle to perception of this problem. Rural America needs to see its shared exposure to risk hidden beneath its diversity of living circumstances.
To develop programs that would replace problem space heaters, we recommend partnering with national and regional organizations and agencies, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; the Southwest Indian Foundation; the U.S. Department of Agriculture; the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association; and the HEARTH Education Foundation. We also recommend developing a program to improve rural electrical system safety that will set priorities in terms of the range of hazards and conditions that the home survey may identify and identify affordable modifications suitable for use in existing homes.
In addition, we recommend developing a national strategy to install working smoke alarms in every rural home. Smoke alarms are probably the best combination of affordability and life safety effectiveness available, and any program to improve fire safety in rural America needs to include a strong component to achieve universal smoke alarm usage. Furthermore, research has shown that the most effective programs are those that not only donate smoke alarms but also install them.
Sprinkler systems in homes should also be considered. Fire hoses, on average, use more than 8 1/2 times the water residential sprinklers do to contain a fire. In remote areas, self-contained water tanks can be used to supply residential fire sprinkler systems. When looking at improvements to water supplies, options that will provide an infrastructure for more use of residential fire sprinklers, as well as supporting firefighter hose operations, should be considered.
A truly national campaign to reduce the rural fire problem is unlikely to develop solely through the independent efforts of the 13,750 communities with populations under 2,500. Even if there are not enough resources to achieve a massive infusion of people and materials to every community, there is a national role in providing model programs, guidance in building program networks, and help in coordinating with other communities. We recommend developing organizational options for providing a supportive network that could be extended to every rural community.
Finally, we recommend increased research on effective ways to meet the needs of the rural fire service. Fire service needs assessments have shown an extensive need for all types of resources, and a larger percentage of rural fire departments invariably have more needs than fire departments in any other size community. Moreover, the trend in volunteer firefighters has been down, not up, for most of the past two decades. Even if some of this decline represents conversion of fire departments from volunteer to career, it seems clear that the significant needs for more firefighters in rural fire departments are not being met in the natural unfolding of events. New ways of recruiting and retaining volunteer firefighters would be very useful in this effort.
Sharon Gamache is director High-Risk Outreach Programs for NFPA’s Public Education Division. John R. Hall, Jr., is assistant vice-president of NFPA’s Research and Fire Analysis Division, of which Marty Ahrens is manager of Fire Analysis Services. Gerri Penney is the community education coordinator for Palm Beach County Fire Rescue in Florida. Ed Kirtley is IFSTA (International Fire Service Training Association) projects coordinator for Oklahoma State University Publications.