Author(s): Lorraine Carli. Published on March 1, 2018.

Modern Twist

A surprising home fire death-rate statistic prompts an examination of fire safety messaging

I spend much of my work life immersed in statistics related to the home fire problem, but even I can be caught off guard every once in a while. Such was the case recently during a presentation I attended about home fire trends given by Marty Ahrens from NFPA’s Research and Analysis Division. Marty told the group that if you have a reported fire in a one- or two-family home, you are more likely to die in that fire today than you were in 1980. It was a brief statement in her presentation, but it was incredibly powerful.

Part of why that fact is surprising is because so often all we hear and talk about is the incredible progress we have made against fires in homes, which encompass one- and two-family dwellings, duplexes, manufactured homes, apartments, row houses, and townhouses. And indeed, the trends have been incredibly positive. In 1980 there were about 734,000 home fires in the U.S. In 2016, there were about 352,000. The number of home fire deaths has also fallen, from about 5,200 in 1980 to 2,735 in 2016. The decline is attributed to widespread use of consumer smoke alarms, codes and code enforcement, safer products, and the impact of public education.

But as Marty pointed out in her talk, even as the total number of fires and deaths has fallen, the number of fire deaths per 1,000 fires in one- and two-family homes has remained consistent, and in some years has even increased slightly. In 1980, the death rate per 1,000 reported fires in one- and two-family homes was 7.1. In 2016, the rate was nine deaths per 1,000 fires. By comparison, the fatality rate per 1,000 fires in apartment dwellings has decreased over that period, illustrating the effectiveness of code requirements in multifamily homes, which are subject to stricter regulation than one- and two-family homes.

The reasons for the higher fatality rate in one- and two-family homes during fires are well known among the fire service and others, and are being discussed more widely among public educators. Modern design and construction features such as unprotected lightweight construction, open floor plans, and synthetic furnishings can combine to make today’s homes burn much faster than they used to. Today, residents could have as little as two or three minutes to escape a home fire, which is down considerably from about eight minutes in the 1980s.

We are warning the public about these kinds of issues, just as we talk about how the majority of fire deaths happens in homes, the place people feel safest, and about the critical need to address the home fire problem. The fact that the risk of death during a fire is higher now than in the 1980s is an additional important piece of information that we have not yet added to our messaging—but we should. It’s the kind of statistic that clearly illustrates the problem and shows why the solutions we advocate for are so critical. Without adequate smoke alarms, the life-saving benefit of home fire sprinklers, and a public educated about these facts, we cannot hope to change the trend anytime soon.

As we deal with a largely complacent public that believes it will somehow never be affected by fire, or with policymakers who are too easily swayed by special interests that seek to weaken codes, we are constantly looking for information that will shock and resonate with our audiences and prompt them to take action to better protect the public and our first responders. The fact that you are more likely to die in a home fire today than you were nearly 40 years ago will hopefully spur them to act.

LORRAINE CARLI is vice president of Outreach and Advocacy for NFPA.