03-07-1999, 12:42 AM #1HowardT10Firehouse.com Guest
WP article on Fed Smoke Alarm Rqmts
Saw this in the 6 March Washington Post. Thought it should get a wider circulation, perhaps at a county council discussion on the fire budget for next year.
Fire Deaths Decline Sharply
Experts Give Credit To Smoke Alarms
By Avram Goldstein
Washington Post StaffWriter
Sunday, March 7, 1999; Page A01
The number of Americans killed in fires is dropping dramatically, thanks to safety improvements such as smoke detectors, sprinklers and child-proof lighters -- but also because people are eating out more and smoking less.
In 1997, U.S. fire deaths totaled 4,050, down from 6,215 in 1988, according to the National Fire Protection Association. In the same year, firefighters responded to 1.8 million fires, a dramatic drop from the 3.3 million fires reported 20 years earlier.
Fire still costs the nation an estimated $100 billion a year in direct and indirect costs, and the death rate in the United States is still higher than in many other industrialized nations, but the downward
trends are indisputable, analysts say.
"Over the past two decades, the U.S. has decreased its fire death rate more than any other nation in the world," said Philip Schaenman, president of TriData Corp., an Arlington firm that analyzes statistics for the U.S. Fire Administration, which coordinates research on the topic. "We're on the right track."
Similar declines are occurring in the Washington area. From 1986 to 1995, the fire death rate fell from 83 deaths per million
residents in the District to 14.4, from 22.9 to 16.2 in Virginia and from 20.1 to 18.9 in Maryland, according to federal statistics.
There are real people behind those numbers. In 1986, 53 people died in District fires. Last year, 10 people died in fires in the the
city. In fast-growing Montgomery County in the late 1960s and early 1970s, 15 to 20 people a year died in fires. Last year, the
number was three.
"We're elated," said Virginia state fire marshal Charles Altizer. "It's maybe even more significant than it looks. We're having a decrease in the number of deaths and fires, while we see an increase in the population and the number of structures."
Twenty-six years after a federal commission transformed the nation's firefighting focus by urging greater emphasis on preventing fires instead of merely putting them out, the results are striking.
Yet Americans have scarcely noticed. In a recent survey, "people actually thought that safety overall had gotten worse," said John
R. Hall Jr., a Fire Administration analyst.
The public perception may be colored by the fact that fire departments have been reluctant to trumpet the improvement because they fear that the good news would invite politicians to cut their budgets.
"The fire chief is put in the position of being so successful that his priority in a municipal budget process is being scrutinized," said Garry Briese, executive director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. "They want to shift limited public funds to other places. That's one of the reasons that the success we've had has not been heralded so much."
As fire calls dwindle, many major fire departments have moved into providing emergency medical services. Fire departments
that provide both services report that up to 80 percent of their calls are for medical emergencies.
The reasons for the good news are many and complex, but analysts are nearly unanimous about the most important factor - the presence of smoke alarms in nearly all American households.
In the mid-1980s, fewer than 5 percent of American homes had smoke alarms. After years of education campaigns and the passage of mandatory detector laws in 44 states, 93 percent of U.S. homes now have at least one smoke detector. And this more than anything else, many analysts say, often means the difference between surviving or dying in a fire.
When I see a death in a residential building, I want to see if there was a working smoke detector, and in most cases there is not,"
Virginia's Altizer said.
While some question how much smoke detectors help prevent fire deaths in the homes of the most vulnerable -- the elderly, young children and those who drink excessively -- the rare dissents have not slowed the push toward more and better smoke alarms.
Urged on by federal and local officials, smoke alarm manufacturers now are offering models with 10-year batteries that cannot be removed. Some new alarms also feature a "hush
button" to silence a false alarm for 15 minnutes, which takes away the temptation to disconnect the detector.
But because 83 percent of fire deaths still occur in homes, government officials are convinced that there can be further reductions in deaths and injuries. This is especially true in the homes of minorities and the poor and in rural areas, which are
less likely to have a working smoke detector and which suffer a disproportionate share of fire deaths.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working with 19 states to install smoke alarms in high-risk communities.
People who cannot afford smoke alarms -- some of which cost as little as $5 -- can obtain them free from many fire departments.
Another reason for the decline in fire deaths is that the medical community has made major strides in keeping fire victims alive.
Since the 1980s, burn centers have seen a significant decline in the average size of burns, progress they attribute to quicker
escapes from fires because of smoke detectors. Doctors also are much more successful at preventing infections and promoting successful skin grafts.
Twenty years ago, a patient burned over 35 percent of his body had a 50-50 chance of surviving. Today, patients have the same
50-50 chance if 75 percent of the body surface has been burned.
"We have been getting better and better," said Marion Jordan, longtime director of the Washington Hospital Center burn unit.
Fire departments have acquired new skills and better equipment for fighting blazes, but most chiefs say their key contributions fall
in the area of fire prevention, inspections and education.
Indeed, analysts say that survival depends mostly on what happens before anyone dials 911.
"If people aren't out of their homes before the fire department arrives, there's a high probability that the firefighters' job won't be a rescue, it will be a body recovery," said Bill Webb, Director of the Congressional Fire Services Institute, an information
clearinghouse for lawmakers.
Officials say tougher building codes and tighter standards for the fire resistance of home furnishings also have helped. Compared
with 20 years ago, building materials today are more fire resistant and electrical wiring is vastly safer.
Many hazardous manufacturing processes and industrial jobs have moved overseas, and those that remain are conducted under stricter safety rules or with more automation. Careless smoking, which persists as one of the top causes of house fires and deaths, is less often to blame because fewer people smoke now.
Even cooking has changed. Instead of everyone preparing two or three meals a day on an electric or gas range at home, Americans eat more frequently at restaurants or use microwave ovens to prepare food without high heat. Kitchen fires are another
common cause of house fires, so fewer home-cooked meals help reduce the chance of fires, analysts say.
Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), a former volunteer fire chief and chairman of the 330-member House fire caucus, has another take: He thinks the reduced death rate reflects a strong economy. "They don't need to commit arson or bail out of a business when times are good," Weldon said.
Safety officials continue to push more federal regulation of consumer products. Consumer advocates criticized the Consumer Product Safety Commission for easing regulation of children's sleepwear last year, but the agency has many other fire-safety initiatives.
Commission engineers are studying whether gas and electric ranges should have heat sensors that would cut off power if pans get too hot and whether to require that furniture fabrics be flame resistant.
Chairman Ann Brown said the commission is interested in requiring tobacco companies to make cigarettes that go out instead of smoldering when they are dropped on carpet or furniture.
Brown said she hopes local governments will change their codes to encourage use of sprinkler systems in all homes to reduce fire
deaths even further. Prince George's County is one of the few jurisdictions in the nation that require every new home, including
single-family houses, to have automatic sprinklers.
The law was passed in 1989, and so far, it has brought sprinkler systems to 30,000 new houses and town houses. Prince George's Fire Chief Ronald J. Siarnicki estimated that 58 lives have been saved by sprinklers since the law took effect.
Home builders dispute Siarnicki's estimate and strenuously oppose the law whenever it is proposed in other jurisdictions because of the cost. They say the typical $2,500 bill for a home sprinkler system is excessive, especially because houses built under newer codes are far less likely to burn than older houses.
"Fire deaths keep dropping and dropping and dropping, and there continues to be this pressure to put sprinklers in houses. It doesn't make sense," said Dick Morris, of the National Association of Home Builders.
But Siarnicki said that in Prince George's, the sprinklers are worth the price. County fire deaths fell from 24 in 1987 to eight
"There are 58 citizens in Prince George's County who are alive today" because of the sprinkler law, he said, "and I feel very
comfortable saying that. We took a stand early on this, and I think we did the right thing."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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