The Role of Demographics in Fire Safety

At the recent symposium in Washington, D.C., "Fire Protection and Safety: Preparing for the Next 25 Years," sponsored by the Fire Protection Research Foundation, demographics was the first item on the agenda in helping to determine what direction the...


At the recent symposium in Washington, D.C., "Fire Protection and Safety: Preparing for the Next 25 Years," sponsored by the Fire Protection Research Foundation, demographics was the first item on the agenda in helping to determine what direction the country, and the fire service, would be moving. Dr. Kevin McCarthy, formerly a senior social scientist with the RAND Corporation, discussed the demographic shifts that will be taking place over the next 25 years and the impact that it will have on the future of fire safety.

The current population of the United States is estimated to be at 306 million people and there will be growth of approximately 1 percent or 3 million people across the country (Global population is estimated to be 6.8 billion). Demographers use a simple formula when calculating population growth called the Balance Equation. It is made up of a segment called "natural increase" which is births minus deaths which is then coupled with immigration.

Population growth =
(Births - Deaths) + Immigration

However, what is more critical is how this growth is going to occur, what it will be comprised of and where it will happen. Natural increase has been what has been the source of population growth in the past, traditionally 75 percent, but this is changing and is being replaced by immigration. Death rates have been declining and the average family size of 2.2 is barely above the ideal replacement size of 2.1.

"Immigration will be the driving factor in the future for the developed world," reported McCarthy, and this will have a significant impact upon future society in a number of ways.

Approximately 40 percent of the population growth will be driven by immigrants, but it will be even more, according to McCarthy, if the offspring are also considered, bringing it up to 50 to 60 percent of the population growth. What makes this a concern is that "immigration is more selective and is different from natural-born growth,' observed McCarthy.

The first is that the age of immigrants are skewed towards working ages, so there will be an immediate influx of workers coming directly into the workforce and will have a disproportionate impact rather than where a population ages and "grows" into the workforce.

Another component will be the makeup of the immigration growth. According to McCarthy, 70 percent of the immigrants will come from Latin American and Asia and will be concentrated in six states: California, New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey with almost 50 percent of the growth occurring in cities. The percentage of non-Hispanic white population will drop from 72 percent to 60 percent.

Cultural Differences Impacts Public Education
The impact of the changing race of society due to immigration will create a challenge to provide fire safety education. As one fire marshal observed, it isn't necessarily language barriers but cultural ones that have to be overcome. For example, a recent tragedy in Philadelphia occurred to a family that had recently emigrated from Liberia where seven family members were killed. The fire was caused by an attempt to refuel a kerosene heater with gasoline in a basement with only one exit and no smoke alarms. Culture comes into play to determine what channels and methods are used to reach out to different demographic groups.

Along with immigration is the graying of today's society as the Baby Boomer generation, generally the group born after World War II in the period from 1946 to 1960, ages with the median age increasing from 35.3 to 39.5 years. The number of seniors will increase from 12.5 percent to 20 percent and along with this will be a change in the type of housing stock which will be more concentrated and smaller as the families become smaller. People aren't going to need, or want, the large houses and yards to take care of as they age.

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