NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Fire deaths in Tennessee increased by nearly 50 percent in 2003 over the previous year and the rate is more than twice the national average, prompting state officials to renew their push for greater awareness of the dangers.
``Regardless of how we compare to other states, these numbers are tragic and unacceptable,'' said Emmett Turner, assistant commissioner for fire prevention in the Department of Commerce and Insurance.
There were 104 accidental fire deaths in Tennessee in 2002, the department said, and 155 last year, although those numbers are not final.
DCI Commissioner Paula Flowers said the state is adopting a more aggressive agenda for its Fire Safe Tennessee program, a large component of which is educating the public.
``If we had twice the national average of tuberculosis or cancer, people would be up in arms demanding a major public health initiative,'' she said Monday. ``That is why Fire Safe Tennessee is organized like a public health campaign _ involving educators, businesses, the fire service, senior centers and local leaders. We're tackling this problem through research, education and prevention activities.''
The program's three goals for the year reflect the educational components:
- better reporting of the causes of all accidental fire deaths from local agencies;
- recruiting and training a public fire safety educator in each county;
- and promoting the use of smoke alarms.
``The one thing that firefighters tell me most often is that if we had a working smoke alarm in every home in our state, our fire death rate would be cut in half over night,'' Flowers said.
Turner said statistics show the elderly and the very young are at greatest risk of fire deaths, which occur more often in the winter, at night and on weekends.
``Most of these people are dead before firefighters arrive on the scene, and most of them are preventable deaths,'' Turner said.
For the second straight year, BRK Brands has made 10,000 of its First Alert smoke alarms available to the state at cost, or $3.10 each, for donation to local fire departments.
Family Dollar Stores has donated 1,000 alarms to the program, and the makers of Energizer batteries have donated 1,800 batteries to fire departments and 1,000 more to the Fire Safe Tennessee effort.
Flowers said she is hopeful that better data from fires will help the state more precisely pinpoint problems and act against them.
``We're talking about changing the way people live their lives,'' she said. ``It will only happen with education and awareness. The more attention we can bring to this the safer people will be. It really is a matter of personal responsibility.''