Picture the following scenario from "Anytown, U.S.A.": You wake up from a night's sleep and walk into the den, where the early-morning news is on TV. As your eyes focus, you notice that a reporter is interviewing a battalion chief about a house fire his department has just extinguished. "It...
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Picture the following scenario from "Anytown, U.S.A.": You wake up from a night's sleep and walk into the den, where the early-morning news is on TV. As your eyes focus, you notice that a reporter is interviewing a battalion chief about a house fire his department has just extinguished. "It started off as a 'room-and-contents,' as best we could determine when we arrived about 2 A.M., but it had already spread through the entire house, and, unfortunately, the children in the back bedroom were overcome with smoke. By the time we located them, it was too late to save them."
This scenario is played out across the United States every week. It is as common as watching the latest traffic report. What most people in our country don't understand is that this scenario is abnormal in much of the rest of the world. Our citizens are desensitized to the fire problem — and so is the fire service. One key reason is that we do not have a top-of-mind focus on collecting data. If we do not have access to quality data, how can we even begin to attack the problem? We cannot even discuss it. If we can't discuss it or present it in a way that makes sense to our citizens or our administrations, we will never be able to make our case for financial and resource support to make the fire problem diminish.
What the Numbers Tell Us
In December 2009, the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA)/National Fire Data Center (NFDC) released the Fire in the United States, 2003–2007 report, dated October 2009 and covering the five-year period of 2003 through 2007. The good news is that the national fire-loss statistics continued on a downward trend. The report indicates that deaths from fire in the United States were estimated at 12,000 in 1974, the year in which the USFA was established, and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) estimated fire deaths in 2007 at 3,430. While this is indeed good news, we need to understand it in a much larger context. In that sense, the news is dismal. Despite all the improvements made during the past three decades, the report indicates that "the United States has a fire death rate two to 2½ times that of several European nations and at least 20% higher than many other nations. Of the 25 industrial nations examined by the World Fire Statistics Centre, the United States ranked as having the fifth-highest fire death rate. This general status has been unchanged for the past 27 years."
It is important for us to be aware of such global statistics and comparisons, since they help us better realize where we truly stand, recognize our shortcomings and point out areas that we need to focus on to do an even better job in the future. We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. What can we in the fire service do to provide a higher level of fire protection for our communities and better address the fire problem in our country?
The depth of our national fire problem is clearly depicted in the very first paragraph of the report's executive summary section, which states: "Fire departments in the United States responded to nearly 1.6 million fire calls in 2007. The United States fire problem, on a per capita basis, is one of the worst in the industrial world. Thousands of Americans die each year, tens of thousands of people are injured and property losses reach billions of dollars. There are huge indirect costs of fire as well — temporary lodging, lost business, medical expenses, psychological damage, and others. These indirect costs may be as much as eight to 10 times higher than the direct costs of fire. To put this in context, the annual losses from floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and other natural disasters combined in the United States average just a fraction of those from fires. The public, the media and local governments generally are unaware of the magnitude and seriousness of the fire problem to individuals and their families, to communities and to the nation."