Ashland, Oregon

Fire in The U.S.

In 2002, 79% of fires in the United States occurred in the home, resulting in 2,670 fire deaths. In the U.S., someone dies from a home fire every 197 minutes. One-half of all home fire deaths occur between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.. Children under age five account for 17% of these fire fatalities. To accurately assess levels of national fire safety in the United States it is helpful to make selected comparisons to other industrialized nations in Europe and the Pacific Rim. The U.S. and Canada continue to lead the world in fire deaths per capita. The U.S. has consistently maintained at least twice the European average, and is four to five times higher in the number of fire deaths than the lowest rates in Europe.

The European public displays a greater awareness of fire risk than Americans, which is generally believed to be a result of their history. Having experienced war in their homelands during the last century, most citizens are painfully aware of its destructive effects. European attitudes toward fire prevention and public fire education are positive and have, in part, resulted in lower frequencies of fire and fire-related fatalities. European structures are viewed as family inheritances and are the result of stricter fire codes and more rigorous enforcement actions than in the U.S. Insurance companies in Europe play an important role in reducing arson and preserving the structural integrity of buildings. In many cases insurance coverage may not be provided unless building plans are approved by fire and building departments, and the quality of construction meets existing conditions. Arson-for-profit has been substantially reduced by requiring fire damaged buildings to be rebuilt on the same site as originally used. Heating systems, a primary cause of fire in the U.S., are required to be inspected quarterly in some European countries and certified for use by the homeowner.

Hong Kong has over five million people occupying one of the most densely populated areas on earth, but has less fire fatalities than 57 of the 58 largest cities in the United States. Chicago's population is roughly one-half that of Hong Kong, however it has maintained three times the number of fire fatalities annually. Los Angeles sustains three times the number of fires annually than the city of Tokyo, although Tokyo holds four times its population. The New York City Fire Department answers more fire calls annually than the entire nation of Japan. One engine company in Cincinnati, Engine No. 5, answers a greater number of fire calls annually than the city of Nagasaki with a population of over 450,000. Clearly the basis for these disparities lies in the intensity of fire prevention efforts. In Japan, emphasis is placed on individual responsibility for care and awareness.

The Japanese have targeted the home for the bulk of their fire safety educational efforts. Japanese fire departments routinely assign 10 to 15% of their personnel to full-time prevention activities, compared to less than one percent in the U.S. The Japanese efforts also include school instruction, radio and TV broadcasts, media coverage of each structure fire, door-to-door distribution of fire safety instructional materials, women's and children's clubs and national campaigns. Hong Kong has instituted built-in safety in high-rise buildings where the majority of the population resides. These publicly subsidized housing projects incorporate extensive fire safety provisions and public fire education instruction. The people of Hong Kong display strong motivations toward fire prevention efforts and accept individual responsibility for fire safety.

The Hong Kong Fire Department conducts approximately 140,000 fire inspections annually, with three-quarters of these based on citizen complaints. Obviously, the variances in fire protection practices among nations are the result of differences in climate, geography, history, customs, political systems, and other socio-economic characteristics. The question we must ask ourselves is in regard to the transferability of these practices into the U.S. In large measure, the current residential fire fatality experience within the U.S. could be reduced by the installation of fire detection and extinguishing systems currently available. The greatest limitation to successful fire rescue efforts by the fire services is detection and response time. Often these two critical elements are not under the complete control of the fire service. Early detection, coupled with automatic fire sprinkler protection, can do more in the first few minutes of a fire emergency to safeguard lives and property than can a prompt response by the local fire department.

A thorough review of the most recent fire loss statistics in the U.S. suggests that an aggressive public fire prevention and education program, in conjunction with improved fire and safety provisions in buildings, can substantially reduce the tragic loss of life and property due to fire and its effects. A common thread which weaves through what we know about America's fire problem suggests one important principle: fire safety is a community responsibility. It is a responsibility requiring the cooperation of citizens, property owners, engineers, contractors, policy makers and fire department personnel. Fire safety efforts begin at home -- where all of us live and where 80% of our fire deaths occur.