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 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.

Along with the aging population is the issue of communicating with today's youth at the other end of the spectrum, added Larry McKenna, a fire program specialist with the U.S. Fire Administration. Given the different methods used by today's generation to communicate, reaching out to them with fire safety messages and information can be a challenge.

Another important factor will be as the typical house becomes occupied by just one or two people without any children, what impact is this going to have on the political climate, asked McCarthy. Are they going to be as willing to pay tax dollars to support fire and emergency services as they have in the past? "Future growth will be shaped by households headed by someone over 65," reported McCarthy.

In delivering fire prevention messages, are we necessarily reaching the people before they become invalids, observed McKenna. This can be vital to changing behavior before it is ingrained and hard to change in the older generation.

Engineering and Fire Safety
This is also going to be a factor in other types of occupancies, said Stacy Welch, a fire protection engineer with the Marriott Corporation. "Building evacuation is a huge issue and is going to change over the next 25 years. The buildings are more complex and will continue to be so." Owners are now looking at properties in urban areas that they would not have considered before and, as an example, Welch mentioned a site that is only 0.11 acres with a 33-story hotel under construction. Fitting in the stairwells in such a small footprint is going to be problematic.

Or Washington, D.C., where no building is allowed to be higher than the dome of the Capitol Building. As a result, more hotels are putting their meeting rooms below grade which means that people will have to evacuate up, instead of down. As a result, Welch believes that we cannot rely on stairs as the sole means of egress and, as society ages, elevators and reversing escalators are going to be a part of any evacuation plan.

But perhaps, even more than the evacuation plan, is changing the mindset on evacuation and whether it is necessary at all. In Marriott properties that are equipped with automatic fire sprinklers, fire control happens very quickly. "We find that it isn't even necessary to evacuate the three floors (fire floor, the floor above and the floor below) because of the rapid fire control," said Welch. "The risk of evacuation (under these circumstances) can sometimes be higher than that of the fire."

The biggest impact on the future of fire safety is going to occur before the fire breaks out. "Fire prevention benefits property owners," concluded Welch, a fitting testimony for the importance of education and fire protection engineering.

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ED COMEAU, a Contributing Editor, owner of, a technical writing firm focusing on fire safety and is publisher of Campus Firewatch. He is the former chief fire investigator for NFPA and was a fire protection engineer with the Phoenix Fire Department Special Operations and Training Division. He was a member of the Amherst, MA, Fire Department while receiving his degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Massachusetts. Ed is the host of the Campus Firewatch Radio and Fire Marshal's Corner podcasts on He manages several blogs that track fire stats, including: Significant Multiple Fatality Fires and Sprinkler Fire Watch. To read Ed's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. You can reach Ed by e-mail at: