You could then point out that in spite of the fact that we have greatly reduced the fire problem in this country since that time, we still have the reputation of having the worst record in the western world for destruction by fire. You will probably get a get a blank stare and a response like "I had no idea."
Then you can take the conversation in this direction. Here is an idea of the scope of the problem today in the US. According to the NFPA, fire departments in this country responded to 1,602,000 fires in 2005, an increase of 100,000 fires over 2004. Now, those are fires that we know about through responses to NFPA surveys. Remember, there are over 27,330 fire departments in the U.S., so one must consider the departments that did not have a survey, or did not report through NFIRS. In 2005, 521,500 structure fires occurred, an increase of 3.2 percent. Residential properties suffered 396,500 fires or 76 percent of all structure fires.
There were 3,675 civilian deaths and 115 firefighter deaths, with 2,900 civilian fire deaths that occurred in the home. There were 17,925 civilian injuries. Nationwide there was a fire death every three hours with an injury every 34 minutes. In terms of direct property loss, the count is $10.7 billion.
The Bottom Line: Statistical Snapshot of the U.S. Fire Problem
Here is the bottom line. Every 18 seconds a fire department responds to a fire somewhere in the nation. A fire occurs in a structure at the rate of one every 60 seconds, and in particular a residential fire occurs every 80 seconds. Fires occur in vehicles at the rate of one every 90 seconds, and there is a fire in an outside property every 37 seconds.
In terms of deaths, here is the picture: imagine two fully loaded 747 jets colliding in mid-air with all souls on board being lost every month. Now that you have their attention, you can begin the discussion of how this problem relates to the problem in your community. If you were then to discuss other types of incidents, you might say that in addition to structure fires, fire departments responded to 12,331,000 medical aid calls, 985,000 hazmat calls, 838,500 mutual aid calls. In all, fire departments in the US responded to 20,965,500 incidents.
Unfortunately, we are still living by the catastrophic theory of fire prevention - from the Coconut Grove fire to the Happy Land Social Club fire to The Station fire in Rhode Island. This does not need to be the norm in our society. We have been dealing with the problem for so long this way; we think this dysfunctional approach is normal.
This is not the case in countries such as the U.K. or Japan. In those countries, the emphasis and budget spend is on prevention, inspection, in-structure suppression, stricter codes and public education. But, these are thoughts for another column. For now, let's remember to use the marketing mechanism to make certain that the citizens, institutions and businesses we protect are safer from the first reason we are in business: the fire problem.
Ben May, a Firehouse.Com and Firehouse Magazine contributing editor, has been developing the discipline of fire and emergency services marketing management for the past 15 years. He has been a firefighter for Montgomery County, MD, Fire and Rescue and fire commissioner for the Woodinville, WA, Fire and Life Safety District. May holds a bachelor's degree in public affairs from the University of Oklahoma and a master's degree in international communication from the American University in Washington, D.C. He has been a vice president of two international marketing firms over the last 25 years, and now is responsible for business development for Epcot at Walt Disney World Resort. You can e-mail Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org