Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on May 1, 2021.

Happy Camper? 

On the brink of the summer season, a recent report outlines the hazards associated with recreational vehicles


Listen to a related NFPA Podcast about RV safety, as well as grilling safety, as the summer months begin.

With the arrival of camping season in the United States, fire safety experts say it’s important to recognize the fire hazards that can exist in recreational vehicles (RVs). These range from electrical and mechanical failures to heaters running too close to combustible materials, cooking equipment, and more. 

A report released by the Fire Protection Research Foundation (FPRF) in December shed light on the issue. “Most fatal [RV] fires occur in older models of RVs, as they have fewer and less advanced fire safety measures,” the report reads. “They also have older engines and equipment that are more likely to fail, which is a common cause of fires.” 

The scope of the report followed the definition of RVs provided in NFPA 1192, Standard for Recreational Vehicles, which defines a recreational vehicle as “a vehicle or slide-in camper that is primarily designed as temporary living quarters for recreational, camping, or seasonal use; has its own motive power or is mounted on or towed by another vehicle; is regulated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as a vehicle or vehicle equipment; does not require a special highway use permit for operation on the highways; and can be easily transported and set up on a daily basis by an individual.” 

According to the FPRF report, smoke alarms also play an important role when it comes to the outcome of RV fires, with the vast majority of the 24 average annual RV fire deaths occurring in RVs lacking smoke alarms. On average, 20 deaths a year occurred between 2008 and 2017 in RV fires when no smoke alarm was present, while only one death occurred in fires in RVs with working smoke alarms. 

That’s why it’s critical for RV owners to maintain working smoke alarms, as well as stay on top of routine vehicle inspections and maintenance, said Doug Mulvaney, senior director of campground design services for Kampgrounds of America (KOA), in a recent video produced by the FPRF. Mulvaney—who also chairs the technical committees for NFPA 1192 and NFPA 1194, Standard for Recreational Vehicle Parks and Campgrounds—served on the project technical panel for the foundation report. 

Watch a video featuring Jacqueline Wilmot of the Fire Protection Research Foundation and Doug Mulvaney of Kampgrounds of America discussing the foundation's recent RV fire safety report. (FPRF video)

For non–RV owners looking to rent the vehicles, similar recommendations exist, Mulvaney said.  

“Do the homework with the [RV] owner,” he said. “Ask when the last time the vehicle was inspected, take a look at the fire extinguisher, make sure it’s current and that the extinguisher itself hasn’t expired, and check those monitors—there are indication lights on the propane system as well as the carbon monoxide system that show that they’re current and functioning correctly. You can manually check smoke alarms to make sure there’s an audible alarm. Ask if there’s an owner’s manual so you can familiarize yourself with the vehicle and learn how it operates. You really need to just take the bull by the horns.” 

RV fire safety is more important now than ever given the number of people choosing camping over other vacations because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mulvaney said KOA data showed “a major uptick” of about 7 percent in new campers in the US in 2020. “Folks obviously changed plans to fly or travel abroad and chose to either rent or buy an RV … and go out and explore the outdoors through camping,” he said.

ANGELO VERZONI is a staff writer for NFPA Journal. Follow him on Twitter @angelo_verzoni. Top photograph: Getty Images