Challenging The Status Quo: Eliminating Civilian Fire Deaths

Recently, a new challenge was initiated by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), United States Fire Administration (USFA), the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and several non-government agencies to eliminate residential fire deaths by 2020...


Recently, a new challenge was initiated by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), United States Fire Administration (USFA), the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and several non-government agencies to eliminate residential fire deaths by 2020. While this may seem an impossible goal, it may be more achievable than once thought.

Looking back, prior to 1974 when the USFA was established, the annual civilian fire death rate was estimated at 12,000. An early goal of the USFA was set to reduce fire deaths in the United States by 50-percent within 25 years. This goal was met. Although the civilian death rate continues to decline, the United States still has a death rate two to two-and-a-half times that of other industrialized nations; an unacceptable statistic.

Comparing the U.S. to other nations, the U.S. is surpassed in the area of fire prevention. This is especially true in the area of public safety education which ultimately changes behavior. Unfortunately fire prevention/education is also more long term effort, harder to quickly quantify benefits and not as exciting as firefighting.

It is clear that eliminating fire deaths can only be achieved by a multi-faceted approach. That approach involves the adoption of effective building codes, fire code enforcement, public fire education, working smoke detectors in homes, domestic sprinkler systems and effective firefighting operations with appropriate staffing and response times. In an attempt to share best practices, the remainder of this article describes the programs that have been implemented in Charlottesville, VA, and the outcome associated with these programs.

Smoke Detectors

Charlottesville has had great success in reducing residential fire deaths and it follows a long and extensive history of time, effort and resources. For the past nine years, Charlottesville has had zero fire deaths but that was only after some very specific and measurable actions. In 1995, Charlottesville Fire Chief Julian Taliaferro (now retired), set out to develop a strategy that would have lasting affects. One key part of the strategy was to install free smoke detectors in the homes of Charlottesville residents. Originally Satyendra Huja (former Community Development Director) identified Federal Community Block grants that could be used to purchase smoke detectors for 'at risk' homes. That program was so successful that it was expanded to become available to any home in Charlottesville. Utilizing on-duty resources, firefighters were soon installing free smoke detectors in homes as requested. Since 1995, over 1,000 smoke detectors have been installed in homes of Charlottesville residents. Keep in mind that prior to the free smoke detectors; Charlottesville never had more than two consecutive years without a civilian fire death - a measurable success. The program also has other benefits as it provides the opportunity to install smoke detectors for senior citizens which are one of the more vulnerable groups. It also created a fantastic relationship between firefighters and the citizens served. There were so many letters of appreciation that firefighters actually enjoy meeting the public and installing the smoke detectors.

Not resting on laurels, the Charlottesville Fire Department has implemented Project Smoke Detector to insure that every home in Charlottesville has a working smoke detector. Surveys and outreach involves the media, neighborhood associations, civic organizations, and telephone surveys as a means to visually map and validate smoke detector presence.

Public Fire Safety Education

Public fire safety education is another one of those areas of excellence in the Charlottesville Fire Department. The fire department has a number of programs that have been effective in helping educate children such as school education program, fire safety puppet program, public safety robots, fire safety house and more.

Fire Prevention/Code Enforcement

This content continues onto the next page...