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Hitting Close to Home

By now, thanks to all of the efforts that National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has put in developing great statistical reports year after year, we in the fire service know that the majority of the fires and the fatalities occur in homes.

Take a look at the following 2007 fire loss statistics from the NFPA: 

"In 2007, U.S. fire departments responded to 399,000 home structure fires. These fires caused 13,600 civilian injuries, 2,865 civilian deaths, $7.4 billion in direct damage....In 2007, home structure fires caused 84% of the civilian fire deaths and 77% of the civilian fire injuries. Homes include one and two family dwellings, apartments, townhouses, row houses, and manufactured homes...Sprinklers decrease the fire death rate per 1,000 reported residential fires by 77% and the average loss per residential fire by 63%."

Numerous prior reports and statistics have also pointed out that our fire problem is mainly in homes. And that we can, and we must be more proactive. And that must have a much higher priority for fire prevention, if we indeed are serious about reducing our fire fatalities and injuries in our country.

The newest NFPA report "Characteristics of Home Fire Victims" released last month, gives us even a better look; and allows us to fix our scopes on the target to have a much better shot at addressing the fire problem in our country.

What a great report indeed. Here is the good news first. Based on this report, despite all of the fatalities, we are still doing a much better job of protecting our public than before. The report states that "overall, civilian fire deaths in home structure fires were down 47% in 2007, compared to 1980. The civilian fire death rate in home structure fires was down 60% in 2007, compared to 1980."

The not so thrilling news is that the most vulnerable high risk population groups are the very young, the very old, and also the economically deprived. The report indicates:  

  • Children under the age of five are almost 1.5 times as likely to die in a home fire as the general public
  • Adults over the age of 65 are almost 1.8 times as likely to die in a home fire as the general public
  • Adults over the age of 75 are almost 2.5 times as likely to die in a home fire as the general public
  • Adults over the age of 85 are almost 3.7 times as likely to die in a home fire as the general public
  • Certain characteristics that have historically been linked to fire death risk include age, sex, race, education level, poverty, family structure, age of the home, and the vacancy status of the home
  • African Americans in low income areas have higher fire death rates
  • African Americans face a risk of fire death almost twice that of an individual of another race

The report clearly underlines the fact that risk increases with age. And with respect to the fire injuries, the report stated that "as age of victim increases, physical disabilities are cited much more frequently than other factors that contribute to injury."

I believe that with mobility limitations, and the need for assistance for evacuation, the very young, and the very old, along with the disabled, are at a disadvantage and have the odds of survival against them. With that in mind, there could not be a set minimum level of fire protection and life safety in homes; unless as a very minimum, it provides for those most vulnerable. After all, as we age, the risks increases; therefore the minimum levels of safety must be set to still protect the higher risk.

Advancements in the early detection and extinguishing technologies have indeed proven to be essential in addressing the fire problem. In my mind, the majority of the successes mentioned in the report in reducing the fire fatalities, could be attributed to the great push in the late 70s led by the USFA to install smoke detectors in all  new homes.

The smoke detectors are great for early notification. Yet, hearing the alarm alone will not necessarily increase the odds of survival in a fire, especially for those in needs of assistance for evacuation, again the very young, very old, and the disabled.

That is where I believe that with our recent success in the residential building code and the requirement for installation of the residential fire sprinkler systems in all new homes, we will be taking even greater strides in further reducing our fire fatalities.

Installation of residential fire sprinkler system in all new homes is a long term engineering solution to address the fire problem in county. But then, what should be done right now to have a more immediate impact in addressing the shortcomings addressed in this NFPA report?

According to the 2008 November/December issue of the NFPA Journal, NFPA's General Manager, Percy Bugbee believed "that technology alone could not bring about a fire safe world."

In his speech, Bugbee emphasized on the importance of public education and stated:

"Fires, like epidemics of disease or crime, can be stamped out successfully only through the collective will and action of society as a whole. The failure of society to prevent fires has been due to the fact that up to now the average American citizen has not appreciated that nearly all fires are due to simple, easily understood acts of carelessness or neglect.

Once every man, woman, and child realizes and accepts in daily life the responsibility for simple fire prevention measures, death, injury, and destruction by fire will be substantially reduced. It is worth emphasizing that the failure of society to prevent fires is not due to any mysterious and unknown action of fire. There is hardly any field of scientific investigation where more work has been done than in the field of fire protection and fire prevention. The knowledge as to the causes of fires and how to prevent them and protect against them is available".

My friends, in case you didn't know, Percy Bugbee made that speech 63 years ago, back at the 1947 President's Conference on Fire Prevention.

He believed, and I strongly agree, that we must better educate our public about the dangers of fire, and inform them about the consequences of their decisions, and their own roles and responsibilities for their own personal safety. His words are just as true and applicable today, as it was back in 1947.

The focus of Truman's 1947 conference was to conduct a comprehensive assessment and identify implementable solutions to address the fire problem in America. More than 2,000 participants representing various national professional and civic organizations participated in that conference.

The intent was to have all of the major national and regional stakeholders involved, so that they could have their buy in into the strategies and then implement the recommendations.

The reason for me referencing the conference was not only because of their focus on public education. But also to mention their innovative approach in establishing national cooperative mechanisms with many non-fire national organizations, in a collaborative effort to promote life safety and community fire protection at the local levels.

I believe that we can and should do that now. We know where the fire problem is, at home. And we know that many of the fire fatalities are very young, very old, and African Americans. Then why don't we focus on these few specific targets, and through our public education efforts take strides to address the fire problem?

Why don't we establish a strong, sustained, and systematic organizational cooperation at the highest national levels with both the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP)? That way we can work cooperatively with them at the various organizational levels, and provide their membership with systematic public education and fire and life safety information and even health and safety messages.

If we are serious about reducing fire fatalities statistics in those high risk groups, why don't we establish formal organizational relationship and alliance with both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), and bring them onboard with all our public education efforts?

And along that same line, although not a high risk group, but considering the demographical changes in our country, maybe we can focus more on our Hispanic population, and make a sustained systematic effort to better educate them through the Spanish PSAs and other public education efforts also.

These examples of NAACP, AARP, and the Hispanic organizations are just to show a point.  We need to do much better.

The first step though, is for us to truly believe in the importance of public education and fire prevention ourselves. Maybe the reason that we haven't made such alliances with those organizations yet, is because we haven't yet committed ourselves fully to have a higher priority for fire prevention. But then, how many more reports should point out to the same conclusions before we commit ourselves more to better educate those high risk population groups? What are we waiting for?

I believe that we have a great opportunity with the NAACP, AARP, and the Hispanic organizations; since these organizations have tremendous political powers, and when they talk, people on the Capitol Hill listen. Besides, active involvement from their local chapters would be instrumental in the implementation of our life safety and fire protection strategies.

Here is my suggestion for whatever its worth.

I believe that with Kelvin Cochran and Glenn Gaines at the helm and leadership of the USFA, we have a great opportunity to establish strong, sustained, and systematic organizational ties at the highest levels with both the NAACP, and the AARP.

Can you imagine the positive impact of Kelvin delivering his "Fully Involved" presentation to the NAACP? Any doubts that his leadership and direct involvement at the highest level would also energize all African American fire service organizations such as the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters (IABPFF), to get involved at the local levels and establish strong and direct connections to the membership of the NAACP at all the cities across the country?

What better way to educate our African American population about life safety and fire protection and reduce their fire fatality rate, which is twice as high as the others? That would be public education at its best. Again, the key to success though, is for us in the fire service to truly believe in the public education and the fire prevention first. We must recognize that we are public servants, and fire prevention is our job. It is only when we do our job right, that the public is better protected.

Similarly, Hispanic fire service organizations such as International Association of Hispanic Firefighters (IAHF) could also be actively involved in educating our Hispanic population in all our cities, utilizing all of the great Spanish public education materials that NFPA has developed throughout the years.

I believe that as an organization, the IAFC also is set up ideally to play an important role both at the national leve. Through their regional divisions and various sections, they can play an active role at the local levels to better educate our public.

How about if every year, the outgoing president of the IAFC, while serving his/her term as the past-president on the IAFC Board, assist the USFA Administrator and along with him serve as the fire service liaisons to the AARP? Why not?

I also believe that the role of NFPA and its president, Jim Shannon, is of extreme importance. NFPA must be actively involved in this public education effort to better educate millions of the NAACP an AARP membership about life safety and fire protection. NFPA's public education materials, research, statistics, and reports are essential, and their involvement in establishing these organizational alliances with NAACP and AARP is of utmost importance.

After all, I am not suggesting making an organization contact with the AARP, and the NAACP, just for the mere sake of establishing ties with them. We must have a solid game plan, along the public education materials, and of course the necessary expertise to have a systematic and sustained public education programs for their membership.

Planting the seed is important. But then it is only the first step. The most important part is the continuous attention, care and maintenance that must be given to these efforts to establish the roots, sprout and continued growth. And NFPA's leadership and involvement at the highest national level and the through their regional offices are essential in all phases of this process.

Needless to say, educating our public is the responsibility of all fire service organizations. There are plenty of great fire service organizations that could and should roll up their sleeves to help with this public education effort. The more active and systematic involvement from all other national fire organizations, such as the IAFF, the merrier.

Who am I to suggest such tasks to the highest fire service leaders in our country? Nobody.

Just a small member of this large family of public servants, who truly believes that we need involvement at the highest organizational levels from the cream of the crop and our best leaders at the national level, to establish ties with these two very influential organizations, with the intent to better educate millions of members about better life safety and fire protection. Undoubtedly such leadership would then trickle down to the state and local levels and serve all our communities well.

To tell you the truth, it doesn't matter why this was not done before. But I don't have any doubt at all that our sustained, systematic public education efforts in those fronts would yield positive results. Does anybody have a good reason why we should not do this? Then why not get involved now?

Oh, before you think that I forgot about mentioning the other vulnerable population group, the very young; I must tell you that although the NFPA report indicates that "children under the age of 5 are almost eight times as likely to die in a fire caused by playing with heat source than are people of all ages," the that report indicates that "from 1980 to 2007, the share of home fire deaths accounted for by children under age 5 declined from 18% to 9%."

The report also said that "the relative index for home fire deaths for children under age 5 has declined sharply since 1994, when the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) instituted requirements for child resistance in lighters."

That certainly is good news, and the 50% reduction in 27 years is indeed a great trend. I am sure that with all of the NFPA's efforts and the legislations in various states to ban sale of the novelty lighters, we will see a further reduction in reducing our youth fire fatalities in future.

I am fast approaching the AARP membership age myself. I don't know about you, but I personally don't like the odds staked against me as I age, as the NFPA report shows. You don't have to be a bookie in Las Vegas to recognize that the odds of dying in fire for adults older than 75, being 2.5 times more than the general public, is not in your favor.

For me, thank goodness that we have the buffets here in Las Vegas, otherwise the report's statistics that "adults 85 and older are at higher risk of death in fires caused by cooking equipment, with a risk rating 4.5 times that of the general public" would mean that kitchen will be closed for good when/if I get to be 85. Just kidding, but you see the point.

Why did I write this article now? Call me selfish, but I wrote this article to promote better fire and life safety education for the higher risk population groups, just to increase my own odds of survival from fire if/when I get too old to self preserve.

Considering that we in the fire service are not in the habit of embracing change too fast (no kidding, just take a look at the 1947 conference recommendations), I thought that if I promote the concept now, although it won't help my own parents, but then it might help me down the line when I get to that age.

Seriously though, take the time to read this new NFPA report. It shows where we need to be focusing on more and provides us with the exact coordinates of the targets. Most importantly though, get involved and ask your national fire service organizations to be actively involved in this great public education effort.

This report is hitting close to home for me. Remember my friends, that you will be facing these same exact challenges as you age, and the odds are stacked against you. Unless we do something about it.

AZARANG (OZZIE) MIRKHAH P.E., CBO, EFO, CFO, MIFireE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is the Fire Protection Engineer for the City of Las Vegas Department of Fire & Rescue. Ozzie served on the national NFPA 13 Technical Committee for Sprinkler System Discharge Design Criteria and serves on the IAFC Fire Life Safety Section Board of Directors. He was the first recipient of the IAFC's Excellence in Fire and Life Safety Award in 2007. Ozzie has participated in two Radio@Firehouse podcasts: Six Days, Six Fires, 19 Children and 9 Adults Killed and Fire Marshal's Corner. You can reach Ozzie by e-mail at amirkhah@lasvegasnevada.gov.

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