Speaking of Fire
with Robert Rielage
Fire statistics can be powerful tools to communicate to the public, media and elected officials to effect change
The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) released its periodic report on Fire in the United States in early-January 2020. The report reflects data from 2008 to 2017, as the numbers must be properly analyzed and inclusive of enough time to avoid any anomalies in any given year. This helps present a clear picture of the overall trends in the frequency and severity of the fires we fight.
The latest edition is based not only on the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) but also others sources developed by the NFPA, state fire marshals’ offices, the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) and the U.S. Census Bureau. While NFIRS remains the main source of these statistics, the data from the other agencies refines NFIRS’ input, both to remove possible duplications and to catch data that may not have been reported if a NFIRS report was not subsequently updated.
All fire chiefs and chief officers should download the entire report if for no other reason than to use this data to better describe the fire issues that your department faces on a daily basis to your City or Town Council, Board of Commissioners or the news media. There are several misconceptions held by the general public, the media and our elected officials that are described in the report – misconceptions that can and should be clarified.
RESPONSE TYPES AND FREQUENCY
This report centers on the 1.3 million fires in the United States during 2017. However, it should be noted that the overall number of fire service calls, as estimated by the NFPA in its Fourth Needs Assessment of the U.S. Fire Service, is approximately 32 million total annual responses.
Broken down by call type, the NFPA shows approximately 20 million EMS-related calls; 2.5 million automatic alarms; 1.45 million mutual-aid responses; 500,000 structure fires; 400,000 hazmat calls; 600,000 other hazards, such as downed power lines; and 5.2 million miscellaneous responses. Is there any wonder why the fire service has become known as the nation’s all-hazard response agency?
What is the most frequent fire response in the United States? To my surprise, the largest number is actually fires classified as outside or outdoor fires. Approximately 43% of fires fall into that category, which includes field, brush, wildland, vacant lots, trash and debris fires.
FIRE DEATH AND INJURY TRENDS
The USFA has been tracking the fire problem in the United States since its inception in 1974, following the groundbreaking report America Burning. Since that time, one of the most striking reductions has been the number of fire deaths, from an estimated 12,000 in 1974, when the population of the country was 214 million citizens, to 3,645 in 2017, when the population was 320 million citizens. The 2017 estimate of fire injuries was 14,670, continuing another downward trend from 17,610 in 2010.
One of the primary reasons for this downward trend in deaths and injuries in the past decade has been the introduction of residential smoke detectors, including the new generation 10-year detectors, as well as fire sprinkler systems both in commercial and, to a lesser degree, residential structures. The problem remains trying to reach the “hard to reach” when it comes to the basics like residential smoke detectors.
The statistics show that 78% of all fire deaths occur in residential occupancies, the majority of which are one- or two-family properties.
Surprisingly, 15% of fire deaths were related to vehicle fires, but the emphasis for preventing fire deaths remains on home fire safety, with a focus on cooking, including never leaving something on the stove unattended. While 52% of residential fires were caused by cooking, this cause also accounted for 30% of non-residential fires, 32% of all fire-related injuries and 27% of the total fire loss.
[Share with your community: How to put out a grease fire]
From 2008 to 2017, the number of total fires was down 12.3% per million in population and fire injuries down 21%. However, the number of fire deaths has begun trending upward 2.4%, and total direct fire loss adjusted for inflation is up nearly 12%.
Who are the most vulnerable to fire? The statistics show that males, African-Americans, Native Americans, those with limited physical and cognitive ability, and older Americans are the most vulnerable to the risk of a fire death than the general population. With the aging of the baby boomer generation, this trend may continue unless fire safety and community risk reduction programs, including smoke detector installations, increase across the country.
UNDERSTANDING THE SCOPE OF DIRECT AND INDIRECT LOSSES
The report touches on two other pertinent areas. First, the loss from fires reported each year is the direct loss resulting from the fire (i.e., building and contents). There are also huge indirect costs associated with these fires that are not reported. These include the costs of temporary housing, lost business revenue (business interruption), medical or funeral expenses and long-term psychological damage. The 2017 direct fire loss was estimated at nearly $23 billion; however, when considering the addiction of the indirect fire loss, this amount will certainly be considerably higher.
As the USFA report notes in the report: “To put this in context, the annual losses from floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and other natural disasters combined in the U.S. average just a fraction of those from fires. The public, the media and local governments are generally unaware of the magnitude and seriousness of the problem and how it affects individuals and their families, communities and the nation.”
OUR ROLE AS FIREFIGHTERS
While our society may show an everyday complacency to fires, it is up to each of us in the fire service to help correct this misconception, make the public aware of the actual costs in both dollars and lives, and work toward the reduction of both.
About the author
Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master’s degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers — USA Branch. In 2019, he received the Ohio Fire Service Distinguished Service Award. Chief Rielage can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.